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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.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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.