Last week was World Environment Day. It is probably one of the worst times for your brand to talk about its positive contribution to the environment. You can’t expect to cut through when every social media team in the world is posting percentages of plastic reduction or how carbon emissions were offset by planting a small orchard. There’s so little to distinguish the messaging that most consumers don’t know who posted what.
But this is a small tactical faux pas, nothing that will do any real damage. However, recently I’ve noticed there seems to be some confusion between brand strategy and CSR initiatives. A brand might reasonably find itself in two situations. Either sustainability is at the core of that brand or it’s an infrequent tactical message to ensure it looks like a respectable modern business. But some marketers have reacted to the social popularity of sustainability by (they might say) ‘pivoting’ and attempting to re-anchor their brand accordingly. Marketers should proceed with caution. It could be the best thing they ever do. But it could also be a strategic blunder.
Ironically, one problem is the popularity of sustainability (no you won’t see that written down very often). I recall a time when people agreed it was sensible to say something different to your competition. But now every brand I encounter wants to tell me that their packaging is now made of straw or their products now contain fewer turtles. It all blurs into one and that’s a problem, particularly if it’s a key pillar of your brand.
Here’s how to decide on the role of sustainability in your brand.
First, understand that people (still) aren’t that bothered about brands. Objectively therefore, as much communication as possible should be used to reinforce a distinctive proposition. Being green is unlikely to give you stand out. If it does, go nuts. If not, you might need to reconsider.
Second, does sustainability give you an advantage long-term? It might. There are certain sectors where this is sensible. Automotive for example. Not looking outside of fossil fuels is one way to ensure your brand is consigned to the history books. But even in this scenario, automotive brands are going to have to find their distinctive propositions within the new era of green motoring. They can’t all be famous for being, the green one. Tesla got there first, is the most famous and already has that sewn up. Their competitors would do well to remember their core propositions and make them relevant for the future.
Finally, consider whether sustainability really is relevant to your consumer. I can almost hear people waving research papers that say, particularly young consumers, really care about this stuff. And broadly speaking that’s probably true. Getty surveyed 10,000 people globally, 81% saw themselves as eco-friendly, but just 50% bought products from brands that try to be eco-friendly. 48% also felt they should care more about the environment through their purchasing habits, but that convenience takes priority. The truth is that while it’s one of the most popular societal topics, it’s barely relevant in most purchasing decisions for most people. And so, we’ve come full circle to my point about CSR activity vs brand strategy. It makes far more sense for Unliever to talk about sustainability than their brand Magnum or even Lynx (which has a young, eco-conscious audience).
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not trying to dissuade brands from sustainability initiatives. That would be foolish at best and irresponsible at worst. But I urge caution on mixing up an organisational obligation with a brand strategy. Sustainability is quickly becoming something of an expectation of brands, rather than a distinctive positioning. The more you detract from your positioning, the weaker it becomes. And that’s how green messaging can camouflage your brand.