Why firms fall short on touting their sustainability work

A trend that continues to surprise me is the public's continuing low level of recognition about companies' efforts to improve their social and environmental performance and give back to communities.  

In one survey, the proportion of respondents across 14 countries who have heard some or a lot about these efforts barely has changed in the past seven years, and more than 1 in 4 still say they have heard nothing at all.

We know that the resources being put into corporate sustainability over this time period have intensified, as have the drive and competition for recognized leadership in this space.

Why hasn't consumer recognition caught up?  

Advertising timidity

Persistent and widespread skepticism around corporate initiatives undoubtedly is a stumbling block for green marketing, particularly in Western Europe and the U.S. Havas' Meaningful Brands study (PDF) this year shows that only 21 percent feel that brands communicate honestly. Likewise, our GlobeScan Radar research last year found a persistent disconnect across 10 countries between healthy levels of interest in finding out about CSR initiatives and the perceived credibility of corporate communications.

When we ask consumers who have heard about companies' social and environmental activities, news articles and stories remain the dominant information channels, despite a steady downward trend. So does this mean that businesses are so sensitive to the threat of a greenwashing backlash that they are missing out on one on the most powerful methods of getting their message across? And are companies not realizing a return on investment when it comes to enhancing their sustainable brand credentials as a result? Not necessarily.

An alternative interpretation is that we are seeing the increasingly sophisticated ways in which companies share their commitment to sustainability to adapt to changing patterns of consumer-brand interaction. Last year we saw that people learn about companies efforts in a variety of ways, but what particularly stands out is that it is often the less tangible channels over which the company has little direct influence. These include the consumer's own personal experience, conversations with friends and family members, and hearing about the company on blogs or through employees.

Muted marketing

Our advice to marketing and sustainability teams is that it's great if companies can leverage their sustainability strategies through the media. Corporate leaders, such as Honda, Marks and Spencer and Vale (Portuguese), have had success with this in the past. But more companies recognize the value of "light touch" sustainability marketing.  

By embedding the commitment in the heart of the product itself, companies allow consumers to make up their own mind about the company's ethical credentials. Then, by making more information available through accessible channels, such as blogs and social media campaigns, companies can have some influence over popular channels for those who do want to seek out more information to validate their hunches.

This doesn't necessarily mean that print and TV advertising cannot have a green tint. In our earlier Sustainability Leaders survey with SustainAbility, we asked our global panel of experts to rate the impact various corporate actions can have on accelerating progress. Two-thirds (66 percent) felt that applying the company's marketing capabilities to encourage more sustainable consumer behaviour had real potential, but the signals suggest that sustainability marketers need to widen their expectations beyond traditional KPIs, such as campaign recognition and awareness.

Fail image by koya979 via Shutterstock.