At our request, Marc Stoiber, the vice-president for green innovation at Maddock Douglas and a veteran in the relatively young field of sustainability, sat down and created a list of what companies and marketers need to do to make "greenness" (consideration for the welfare of the planet) take hold within their firms and, more important, in the marketplace.
We have absolutely no doubt, as Daniel C. Esty and Andrew S. Winston pointed out in their book Green to Gold (Wiley, 2009), traditional green priorities (reduce, reuse, recycle) will be surpassed by the two new priorities of sustainable innovation: reimagine and redesign. But our question to Marc was, what could companies do to get in front of the curve?
With that by way of background, here are Marc's (with a little bit of help from us) Five C's of Sustainability Branding.
1. COMPETITIVE. To thrive in the marketplace, brands must innovate, and the best new innovations tend to be sustainable. All other benefits being equal today, sustainability differentiates and provides a tangible competitive advantage. Tomorrow, that will not be the case; consumers will expect your product to be the best and most innovative and be sustainable. And they won't pay a premium for green. They will simply expect it. This will be no different from what happened in any other industry. Car buyers want cars they can afford and ones of the highest quality.
2. CONSUMER FACING. Not sure what to do first? Look at what the consumer is looking at. You want to get the greatest benefit out of your new sustainability initiatives by making them something the consumer will see (on your stationery, packaging materials, website, and the product itself). Consumer-facing changes will have the most immediate impact on public perception and, potentially, financial performance. When consumers said they wanted a green cleaning product, Arm & Hammer (CHD) touted the environmental-friendliness of its baking soda, a green cleaner since 1846. Home run.
3. CORE. Tying sustainability to a brand's core business is another way to ensure it resonates with consumers. If your brand sells hamburgers, its sustainability has to be about hamburgers (e.g., organic beef, recycled wrapper). Don't do something unrelated to what people know you for, or they won't reward your efforts. Car brands must focus on making more fuel-efficient, cleaner vehicles, not saving the rainforest. If you do something irrelevant to your core business, you risk alienating or confusing your consumers, at best. We hate to pile on, but unfortunately, BP (BP) is the perfect example of what we are talking about. If you accentuate the green and don't acknowledge the stuff that you still need to fix, you're going to get in trouble.
BP knew that consumers were looking for clean energy. It had a very small investment in clean energy. So it rebranded the whole company from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, put into place such initiatives as installing solar panels on the roofs of its gas stations. This led magazines to write, "What an interesting strategy: Emphasize the thing least important to your company, and ignore the thing most important." And then came the accident in the Gulf of Mexico.
4. CONVERSATIONAL. Sustainability branding is more effective as two-way conversation rather than one-way communication. Honesty and transparency will go a long way with consumers. Disclosing what you're doing well and what you could be doing better will instill trust. Think of Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, an online tool that helps consumers understand Patagonia's strides in making its shirts and pants more sustainably—and lets them see the environmental shortcomings of Patagonia's products as well. This kind of disclosure creates trust, and trust breeds loyalty. Inviting consumers to participate in a conversation about your process will further strengthen the brand/consumer relationship.
5. CREDIBLE. Sustainability strengthens brands. But "greenwashing"—putting more effort into talking about how "green" an initiative is than into actually being green—damages a company. The key is sequence. As long as the business has sustainability efforts in place before announcing them, the public will view the efforts as credible. Sustainable brand success hinges on proven credibility paired with innovation and communication. And proven credibility paired with innovation that excites—and communication that clarifies and engages—is the key to sustainable brand success.