The Power of the Brand: Building demand for sustainable products
How can companies influence consumer demand for more sustainable products and services?
This was the topic of a panel session I chaired at this week’s Green Strategy conference run by Green Mondays and featuring sharp thinkers from BSkyB, Nissan and Ogilvy Earth. And a question that is hot on the agenda for Forum's Sustainability and Brands Round Table.
Why is this such an important question?
- The current lack of mainstream demand and engagement on broad sustainability issues is a barrier to the scaling up of sustainable business practice, and is slowing down the rate of change within individual companies. Many senior business leaders are on record stating their reluctance to be more than one step ahead of their customers – one step can deliver competitive edge, two steps could be commercial suicide.
- Impacts associated with the use phase of products dwarfs the impacts associated with manufacture.
- Our project, Consumer Futures indicates that we are headed towards a world where sustainable living is the norm, as trends around resource scarcity, the explosion of digital platforms and the new age of transparency, as well as an increased desire for meaningful connections, will force sustainability from the margins to the mainstream. So, why not get ahead now and create business opportunity?
So, what’s the answer? Well, first, there are two myths that need busting.
Myth 1: Everyday citizens don’t care about sustainability issues. Of course people care about environmental and social issues, but what they care about will vary according to country and circumstance, and might be a very specific segment of the broad sustainability pie. Right now, in the UK for example, general engagement with environmental issues has fallen since start of the recession. A recent report by Unilever and the Futures Company showed that the % of UK consumers agreeing that living an environmentally conscious lifestyle is important has fallen from 50% in 2008 at the start of the recession, to 45% in 2012.
However, over the same period, willingness to tackle immediate and specific issues, such as energy use, food waste, has increased. And our approach to communicating this agenda has not helped dispel this myth. By relegating sustainability to eco sub brands we haven’t seen cut through of this agenda. Time then to integrate sustainability issues into the core brand proposition.
Myth 2: Sustainable products and services cost more. It is true that certification of commodities costs money. But is this a cost, or an investment in securing supply of vital raw materials, without which there is no business? It is also true that investing in new technologies costs money, but again, isn’t this just smart business? Equally, when a company implements serious sustainability programmes they save money and create new revenue streams. Economies of scale can mean that services and products become cheaper to produce. Which all means that it may not be necessary to pass on any changes in internal cost to the consumer. And if your business model forces you to do this, perhaps it isn’t the right one? Time then to integrate sustainability into the core business model.
With these two myths relegated to the graveyard of eco sub-brands and green marketing, what are the practical steps a business can take to create consumer demand, and move sustainability from niche to normal? These were the top tips that surfaced in our panel discussion:
- Get your own house in order. Unless a business has got a grip on its own impacts, any attempt to communicate on the sustainability agenda to its customers will be seen as inauthentic at best, greenwash at worst.
- Be committed for the long haul. Changing consumer expectations, and ultimately behaviour won’t happen overnight. Sustained and smart programmes are key.
- Play to your distinctive assets. When considering how to communicate on sustainability, focus on those areas where your business and brand can make a real difference, which is often a mirror image of the businesses material impacts. I’m still often struck by the futility of energy companies spending millions on sports sponsorship. Imagine if these millions went into community energy schemes.
- Make the issue real. In its Rainforest Rescue campaign, BskyB denuded a family of all the products in its home that were derived from rainforest products. There wasn’t much left. One way then of bringing home the reality of a world without rainforests. Awareness is the first step to activation.
- Help celebrate individual actions. Make people feel as though their actions count. This is a key recommendation flowing from Olgivy Earth’s Mainstream Green study, focusing on UK consumers, to be launched in two weeks at Sustainable Brands London;
- Help create a tribe, make people feel as though they are part of a movement;
- Create a better choice of choice. Make the choices available on the shelves and web page, sustainable choices. Sort out the choice architecture.
- When it comes to activation, use sparkle, wit, aspiration and desire. No one wants to go and live in a cave with a candle.
There is lots of great practice out there right now. It just isn’t to scale. And the route to scale? Collaborate. With NGOs around specific issues, with communities, and with other businesses. One brand on its own isn’t going to shift mainstream consumer perception. That’s why at Forum we’ve created a Sustainability and Brands Roundtable.
As the meercats say, simples.
For more information on our Sustainability and Brands Roundtable please click here.