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Brand & Sustainability

Sustainability for Brands

A brand can benefit greatly—both in terms of its reputation, as well as financially—when a company decides to make a commitment to sustainability. However, such commitment has to be practiced out of a deep conviction and be communicated honestly. Another thing that is often forgotten: It has to fit the brand.

Why does sustainability pay off for brands?

People these days are highly aware of social deficiencies and global challenges. They don't want to be part of the problem but part of the solution. But: Quite often, their actions don't reflect this noble attitude.

That is why people like to delegate that responsibility to brands, and are also willing to pay more for them. They want to act responsibly and contribute to a better world by buying the brand. Brands that tackle sustainability problems are highly attractive to them—but only if buying the brand does not feel like they are missing out on something or getting a lesser alternative.

With this "deal" between consumers and brands, companies overcome the (ostensible) chasm between the will to do good and their profitability.

So-called impact brands show the kind of attraction that can develop:

  • Tony's Chocolonely with their impact mission "together we make chocolate 100% slavery-free"—founded in 2005—is now the market leader in their home country, the Netherlands.
  • The brand Patagonia was able to triple its sales over a six-year period, while other providers of outdoor clothing had stagnating sales figures.

Does sustainability always mean "ecological"?

No. Of course brands should take measures to counteract climate change. But for the sake of their credibility, brands should examine three different aspects: They should assess their ecological, social and economic commitment.

If sustainability is considered in its entirety—not reduced to its ecological component—it represents a broad action and positioning framework for brands.

Brands should decide on a strong focus, perhaps the social aspect. This generates positive preconceptions—which in turn rub off on the other two dimensions of sustainability. Such a focus by no means precludes measures in the other areas: They are just not placed center field but add to the company's credibility from the sidelines.

Two levels should be considered:

  • Performance level: If a company is particularly active in one of the three areas, it can raise this commitment to the performance level. But this is not absolutely necessary.
  • Perception level: The commitment must fit the brand credibly, be attractive to consumers, and demonstrate how the brand is different from the competition.

The differentiation from the competition is particularly important if the brand is to be positioned with its sustainable actions.

How can I associate sustainability with my brand?

The decision about which path a brand should take must be carefully considered. A company must strategically weigh the options and decide how the interplay of brand and sustainability should work. Based on that, a corresponding communications strategy is created.

Which strategy should be followed? There are three directions:

The brand becomes a CSR brand: The positioning is maintained because, ideally, it is well established with customers. Sustainability is coherently and credibly associated with the brand as a logical connection with the DNA of the brand is established. Every sustainable measure then references this connection.

Volvo says, for instance (we paraphrase): We have always focused on the safety of people, within and outside of our cars. That includes an intact environment and a healthy society. This is why we work on sustainable solutions – social, ecological and economic ones.

The brand becomes a Good Brand: The brand is positioned directly with the sustainability argument. That means: Sustainability must be associated with the brand at the first level of perception. It becomes the decisive buying criterion. It must be ensured that sustainability measures are integrated in all company units and along the entire value chain. Every product must show this attitude.

A successful example is the brand Vaude: They try to act sustainably in everything they do.

The brand becomes an impact brand: The brand is very sharply positioned on remedying a concrete problem or global challenge. That is its impact mission. To achieve this, a profitable business model must be developed. The brand affects changes in the behavior of its stakeholders with its activities.

The brand Patagonia is a representative of this species of brand. It says (we paraphrase): We are in business to save our home planet. Which means nothing less than doing everything we possibly can against climate change.
Patagonia is politically active, fights for (new) nature preserves, and encourages its customers to join local activist groups. In addition, the brand Patagonia shares its knowledge and experience with activist groups so they can increase their effect and efficiency.

Does sustainability follow the motto "a lot goes a long way"?

This is a fallacy often encountered in companies with conventional brands. Many think: "We just have to communicate our sustainability strategy more forcefully—we're doing enough already."

But when it comes to sustainability, the same principle applies: "A lot of performances do not make a strong brand". What counts is a clear focus.

Overdoing it with the measures can even backfire: Consumers become skeptical—and shove the brand into the #Greenwashing drawer. Such problems arise when there is no vision for a brand's sustainability commitment. Brands need a clear focus they can work toward consistently. That's what makes them strong.

How can brands communicate their sustainability commitment?

There is only one way to do this: your way. For a company to design the best possible communication strategy, these questions have to be answered first:
1. Status quo: How sustainable do consumers think the brand is currently? Is its sustainability commitment already contributing to the company's credibility? Please note: A brand loses its credibility if it has never been noticed for its commitment to sustainability and then suddenly, out of nowhere, tries to position itself as "the most sustainable / one of the most sustainable".
2. Context: At what level is the issue of sustainability important to consumers? Is it a purchase-relevant performance criterion? Or would it be better placed at the second level of perception, credibly and consistent with the positioning? Family businesses, for example, should ask themselves if consumers already consider them to act sustainably. If that's the case, it might not make sense to elevate the topic prominently to the first level.
3. Long-term significance: What is the company's intention? What significance should sustainability have for the brand in the long term? Sustainability is not a topic for a quick buzz.

How can an established brand act sustainably and be credible about it?

These five points need to be taken into account to keep brands from winding up in the greenwashing drawer with their ambitions:

  1. Clear Ambition: There must be clarity about what role sustainability should play in the business model and the business practices. Based on this, a decision must be made what the role of sustainability will be for the brand positioning.
  2. Culture First: The claim of acting sustainability has to take root internally first—credibly and with a clear goal. That way it can be integrated into tasks, processes and cooperation. All this has to happen before anything is communicated outward.
  3. Actions Before Words: To achieve the vision, a company has to focus on consistent action, not on individual communication measures like creative campaigns. One indicator of proper emphasis is the distribution of the budget: Are 80% of the budget going to sustainability measures and 20% into communication (which makes sense)? Or is it the other way round?
  4. Talk The Walk: If a brand is far removed from sustainability and people do not associate it with it, measures can still be taken—out of conviction and without communicating them directly and prominently. However, if the perception of the brand is supposed to change, the only way to do that is through honest communication. Customers and the public must be involved in the journey to more sustainability. A company should not suddenly claim that everything has always been perfect.
  5. Referencing: It is crucial to create a feeling of integrity—through a focus that fits the brand. All measures that are communicated need to have that focus. That means: A company should not communicate a whole plethora of measures, but only those that fit the focus.

Must a sustainable brand always take a stand, on all social issues?

Brands should only declare their opinions on topics on which they will take concrete action or have already done so. Such past measures should be communicated along with future ones in this context.

Movements like "Me too" or "Black lives matter" for example should not be seen as just a welcome opportunity to communicate, but above all as an occasion to check one's business activities in general, including personnel policies and choice of partners and suppliers.

If a brand stays merely on the level of appeals and campaigns, this can easily work against it. Take for example the German national soccer team 2021: Their human rights activism during the game against Iceland instantly lost credibility as a making-of high gloss video that revealed superficial goals.

Brands must avoid being accused of woke washing and losing credibility. The term woke washing is applied when an organization or person claims or does something to signal commitment to a social cause—but in reality does nothing about it or even supports the opposite.

What is the difference between purpose and sustainability?

The purpose of a company describes what drives that company beyond striving for profit. It is about the goals and objectives the company pursues aside from making money. It is the company's reason for being, so to speak.

Brands should know what drives them apart from purely seeking profits. This clarity provides the energy for identification and innovation. And it provides the necessary flexibility in case of unforeseeable changes.

A purpose is helpful when it is difficult to present a company on the sustainability platform. While sustainability is often reduced to its ecological dimension, a purpose can be very diverse (but can certainly have sustainable goals).

What drives a brand, apart from earning money—does not necessarily have to be a purpose. Depending on the brand character and the current industry situation, companies should decide whether a purpose, moonshot, mission and vision, or just a positioning beyond rational benefit can do the job.

Every brand should ask itself which aspect of its brand strategy represents the most sensible interface with sustainability.


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