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6 Ways To Make Brand Sustainability Resonate With Consumers

Most consumers don't pay attention to sustainability claims from brands, and for good reason—there's a lot of greenwashing out there. Here's how companies can break through the noise.

Climate change. Resource scarcity. Pollution. Human rights. These are some of the most pressing issues facing business today. They are also some of the most difficult for consumers to relate to, let alone orient their lives around.

According to a recent report from The World Economic Forum and Accenture, sustainability is in desperate need of a makeover. Despite millions of dollars spent marketing the concept over the past decade, only 28% of people know what terms such as "sustainable," "responsible," "eco friendly" and "green" really mean, and just 44% say they trust green claims coming from big brands.

"Business needs to use language that is more familiar, (as) insufficient consumer understanding contributes to a lack of trust," the report says. "Consumers need to be more excited and motivated by sustainability."

For many businesses, exciting and motivating consumers about sustainability is no easy task. That’s not only because, as the report points out, most struggle to tell their stories using down-to-earth language. It’s also because the industry’s standard arsenal of communication tools remains dry and impersonal. Only a fraction of consumers bother to read through corporate reports, web sites or press releases, so it’s no surprise that the concept isn’t resonating better.

There’s also the wider issue that, as a culture, we’ve reached a point of sustainability inertia.

Everywhere we look, we are besieged by depressing facts and dire consequences. News of destructive tornadoes, hurricanes and heat waves emerges almost daily. Frightening footage of melting ice caps and drowning polar bears circulates online. Yet, even as carbon levels in our atmosphere reach the unprecedented 400 ppm mark, consumer behavior is only slowly changing.

A recent poll from Ipsos found that just 3% of Americans say that they only buy sustainable, green, or eco-friendly products. An additional 40% say that they buy sustainable products when they are readily available and there is no big cost difference. Yet, a majority (51%) report that they buy whichever products suit their needs at the time, green or not, and 6% never buy green.

Could it be that the combination of bewildering language and excessive gloom and doom deters positive consumer behavior, rather than promoting it?

Solving for mass consumer apathy represents one of the greatest marketing challenges of our time. If brands truly want to excite and motivate millions of people to change their habits and make different choices, then they need to cut through the "green" noise with a new kind of pitch.

Here, in my opinion, is where they can start:

1: Market better, not greener

It’s time to start emphasizing concepts that consumers can easily relate to. At Toyota, for instance, the sustainability conversation hinges on quality. The company’s unique approach to quality—called "Kaizen"—translates to improved design, procurement, production, logistics, vehicle performance, and environmental impact. In short, a better end-product and user experience. More brands should take a hint from Toyota by communicating quality and encouraging people to prioritize it.

2: Simplify

Sustainability issues are inherently complex. But the brands that have inspired the most positive behavior change resist the urge to over-communicate. They boil complex issues down to simple platforms that people can easily relate to. For example, Nike "builds a better world." Zappos "delivers happiness." Method "stands against dirty." In these cases, the promise is clear. People get it, trust it, and want to be a part of it.

3: Be positive

How many times have you seen an ad on TV showing a ravaged ecosystem, starving child or abused animal—and changed the channel? That’s a natural stress response. Humans are programmed to avoid what is uncomfortable, so why put sustainability-related messaging in the downer category? Instead, more brands should do what Obama did in 2012. He didn’t hinge his message on guilt or fear. He said: "you are the change." He made millions of frustrated people feel personally empowered, and won them over.

4: Ask for it

When Credo mobile launches an environmental or political campaign, it doesn’t leave people hanging. It closes the deal by driving them to take immediate action. In 2012, Credo prompted 20,025,512 people to sign petitions, write emails, make calls, and send letters. And it proved an important point: if a communication is designed to promote positive behavioral action, it is much more likely to do so. More brands should think about what they need consumers to do to support their sustainability efforts—and then ask for the desired response.

5: Show, don’t tell

It’s unreasonable to assume that consumers will translate sustainable attributes into benefits that matter to them. More marketers need to visibly demonstrate how green products make a real difference to people’s lives. For instance, at Plum Organics, the packaging does the talking. Not only does it contain some of the healthiest baby food available, but its stand-up pouch, secure spout and rounded edges give parents a safer and more convenient "self-serve" option, while kids get more control over their eating experience. Benefits like these drive repeat business. You can’t say that about a glass jar.

6: Lighten up

What if more brands made sustainable consumption fun? A few years ago, Volkswagen asked this very question. Its contest, The Fun Theory, challenged local thinkers in Stockholm to make games out of healthier, safer, or more environmentally friendly choices. The ensuing piano staircase and bank bottle arcade machine demonstrate that creative and lighthearted approaches engage many more people to take sustainable actions than standard, drier ones. Imagine what we could accomplish as an industry by directly appealing to humanity's intrinsic desires to be happy, hopeful, and part of something bigger.

The reality behind the need for sustainability may be complicated and depressing, but that doesn’t mean marketing needs to be. Today we have the creative tools to bring sustainability out of the "green" fringes and into the hearts, minds, and daily purchasing decisions of more consumers across the globe.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony Reardon

    Absolutely loved this! Thanks Christine!!

    For years I have been advocating a difference premise or purpose in marketing- superior market intimacy. One key principle is that a company should be genuine, and not just put forward some kind of superficial value to hook people. You see "greenwashing" all the time, and it's often an insult to intelligence. If a company doesn't really care about something like "sustainability", how can they expect their market to value them for it? If they do really care, then they have to find a way to make that count for the right reasons because there are far too many brands out there faking it to make it.

    When it comes to branding a company around environmental consciousness, I think you have to put that in the context of social priorities. The outcomes you are promoting are more important than say your own interests in selling products or services. So why lace your brand with it? If the answer is to influence people to buy your products because of that fact, then you miss the key point.

    Now if you really support the outcome as a priority, then you can use your company as a platform to "do your part". I think there has to be an element of unselfishness there- that instead of leveraging green for your exclusive benefit, you compromise somewhat for an inclusive benefit. That is, virtually all the outcomes like sustainability are in the broader social domain and in need of cultural shift. Using the movement to serve your own interests can be a part of the problem. Using your interests to serve the movement can be part of the solution.

    This issue of mass consumer apathy really is one of the greatest marketing challenges of our time. It is my primary concern in getting companies to refocus on superior market intimacy. I appreciate this attention to cutting through the "noise", and in fact this is essential for getting through to businesses too.

    One final note here is it can be useful to think about how your efforts as a company supports your customers' branding. With the customers now having their own web presence, and caring more about how they are positioned socially, you can see why people might want to associate with companies that help them with their own goals. When it comes to companies, they don't have to feel at a total loss wondering what the point is for marketing their own business interests then. Connecting with people, being a part of their lives, and finding ways to support what matters to them are all part of what a modern business needs to do to compete in today's modern business environment.

    So, extremely refreshing to read this and a pleasure to discover you Christine. Thanks again!



  • Jey Van-Sharp

    Well stated. Few of us want to 'taste the medicine,' hence most of us prefer to 'ingest the pill.'