Brands and sustainability: time to step up a gear

22nd November, 2012 by Sally Uren

With time running out to address our love affair with consumption, it's time for brands to do more to promote interest in sustainability, argues Forum for the Future's Sally Uren.

We’ve come a long way since ad campaigns featuring plaintiff polar bears clinging onto fragments of glaciers were the norm, as a way of urging consumers to be green. From packaging to recycling to provenance, sustainability issues are now communicated in brand campaigns with increasing sophistication.

This is important, as brands remain a key way of addressing a systemic barrier: the one where sustainability issues are seen as the equivalent of going to live in a cave with a candle.

While mainstream consumer demand for sustainability is latent at best and non-existent at worst, businesses remain reluctant to unleash the full might of their forward-thinking strategies into their products and services, and into their communications. 

So, sophisticated campaigns are a step in the right direction, but is the pace of change enough? Not really. We are running out of time to address our love affair with consumption, which is fuelling all sorts of impacts, social and environmental. Brands need to step up a gear. It’s time to move to version 2.0 of brands and sustainability – which means they need to do four things.

First, they must move from raising awareness to activation. Consumer understanding of sustainability issues has never been higher. But the so-called ‘value-action gap’ still hangs around like a bad smell. Brands need to start to encourage behaviour change, not simply tell a story.

Then, they must shift from competition to collaboration. Rather than try and be the smartest at communicating a sustainability issue, they need to collaborate, so that the consumer receives one clear message about what to do – and not multiple, conflicting ones.

They also need to switch from giving these messages via a single channel to multi-channel communication. Simply running an ad campaign in the papers, or peppering a store with some point of sale information, doesn’t create change. And when it comes to digital channels, this means a whole new conversation.

Finally, they have to kill the eco sub-brands, and integrate sustainability into the main brand: the one that the mainstream consumer trusts. Use this trust to convey the message and prompt action.

There’s one more thing a business can do that will make all of this easier. And that’s to integrate sustainability into its own culture. A shared sense of priorities might mean that the marketing departments listen more actively to the CR or sustainability departments – and even anticipate the future demands of consumers.

Most insight data looks backwards, with the result that marketing campaigns often address yesterday’s issues. Looking forward means that the chances of delighting and exciting your customers increase several-fold. Look at what Steve Jobs did. He didn’t ask the world if they would like an iPhone. He imagined a future where technology could unleash a new wave of possibilities.  And then he provided the market with something people didn’t even know they wanted.

Most people don’t know that a sustainable future is something that they want. Let’s use the next wave of sustainability and brands to delight and inspire.

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

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