The Role of Brands in Promoting Sustainability

The Role of Brands in Promoting Sustainability

Addressing sustainability issues can help to differentiate a brand in a world where we are beset by thousands of commercial messages every day, and overwhelmed by choice.

Many of the brands we still know today date from the days when the name signified a basic guarantee of consistency and quality -- names like Coca-Cola and Cadbury. Then, during the post-war expansion in the availability of consumer products, choice played more of a role and the idea emerged of offering emotional benefits to help differentiate between products.

Today our motivations as consumers are changing further. We have less interest in conforming and greater interest in the intangible -- and some brands are now based more on a set of values or a philosophy. For example, Nokia stands for connectedness, while Nike stands for individual achievement.

Brands sell meaning and purpose -- and this is reflected in the language in which we talk about brand now -- brand values, brand soul -- even brand religion! For many people, brand choice is one way of confirming and expressing their own identity.

But underlying all brand values is trust, and here we seem to be facing quite a crisis. In 1980 around two-thirds of consumers believed that companies were fair to consumers most of the time. By 2000 this had fallen to one-third. But people have less trust in ‘big business’ or ‘multinational companies’ as a category than they do in individual brands. Many brands will score almost as highly as the most trusted institutions -- like NGOs or the caring professions. When brands carry so much trust it is perhaps not surprising that an increasing proportion of the intangible assets of companies is now accounted for by brands.

But part of the downside of high visibility and apparent power is that brands are criticized for being used to influence attitudes and behavior negatively. Many companies have been accused of hiding bad practices behind their apparently benign brand images -- Nike, Gap, Macdonald’s.

This is a crux time for brands. Will they stay stuck on the defensive, or can they really be seen as a positive force?

Brands are too important for them to be ignored in the quest for sustainability. They have a role to play in influencing attitudes and behavior, and also to help the process of integrating sustainability within an organization. Many brands already align with ‘good’ causes. Coca Cola is using the aspirational power of its brand, together with its distribution network, to help promote messages about HIV/Aids in Africa. Reebok has aligned the brand with human rights.

However, despite these kinds of activities, few mainstream brands are really making sustainability integral to their products and services, to their business model or to the appeal of their brands. A number of niche brands have done this -- Ben & Jerry’s or The Body Shop for example.

However, many of the overtly ‘green’ brands have not recognized the need to appeal to people at an emotional level. They have so often been too rational, too didactic, too worthy -- too exclusive. An appeal to altruism, or the provision of rational information, doesn’t work on its own.

Perhaps one of the results of the lack of success of many attempts to market on the platform of green benefits has been that many mainstream marketing people have been nervous about addressing sustainability issues in their brands. Sustainability has not been much in evidence as a driving force in many markets. In fact it may be playing a greater role in business to business markets than in business to consumer markets.

Consumers often say they are likely to take environmental and social criteria into account in their purchasing decisions, but the reality is that these are usually well down the hierarchy of criteria.

Lack of strong consumer ‘pullthrough’ means that there is little real interest in most marketing departments.

But perhaps this is a missed opportunity? We know that, as citizens, people are concerned about sustainability issues -- although they may see these more in terms of quality of life. The challenge for brands is to work hard to make connections between improved sustainability performance and quality of life in ways that are meaningful and relevant to the consumer.

Addressing sustainability issues can help to differentiate a brand in a world where we are beset by thousands of commercial messages every day, and overwhelmed by choice. Sustainability can also help reduce risk. People don’t want to feel compliant in the bad behavior of the companies they buy from. New communications technologies means that nothing can remain hidden for long.

There is a rising expectation that companies should use their resources to ‘do the right thing’ -- a simple concept but one that is understood intuitively by individuals. Being seen to do ‘the wrong thing’ can result in consumers taking action against a company -- usually by boycotting their products. This has resulted in real damage to sales for many companies.

A big challenge for brand marketing people is to find new ways to enhance and build the brand, new ways of making it more relevant and meaningful, new ways of building trust.

But there is no point having an appealingly ‘sustainable’ ’image if the reality is quite different. Brands communicate through every aspect of an organization’s behavior. Often when people discuss brands, they tend to think first about the visual identity or presentation issues. But in reality brands are as much about behavior as they are about communication. The nature of the activities of the organization and its people, its policies, practices and culture are just as much components of the brand as logos and advertising. But it is not easy aligning behavior with image.

The brand can also be used to help integrate sustainability thinking within an organization. If sustainability is articulated as part of the brand, or through the brand, then this can become a powerful tool for legitimizing sustainability internally.

Too often, organizations may have great sustainability expertise, good policies and lots of reports, but still feel that sustainability is not really embedded within the organization. Linking sustainability overtly with whatever the accepted core drivers of the organization are -- both the business strategy and the brand model -- is one way of demonstrating to people within the organization that sustainability is fundamental to the business - and therefore is a responsibility for everyone.

But one of the priorities now is finding ways of making sustainability relevant to people. This is not just about providing them with the facts and rational arguments -- it is about engaging ‘hearts and minds.’

Stories can be a terrific vehicle for doing this. Sustainability in fact provides an even richer vein of stories than ‘environment’ alone, as the human elements are so strong.

One approach and a story I like very much is from a small brand, Oatly, produced in the Scania region of Southern Sweden, and sold in Northern Europe. The product is a dairy alternative drink made out of organic oats. The pack information invites users to visit their Web site.

You are asked to type in the ‘use by’ date on the pack. This date leads you to the very farmer whose oats were used to make the drink in that pack. We see all the different farmers telling their own stories -- about their lives, their approach to farming, their families, their concerns about the environment. This has the effect not only of educating the customer about sustainable agricultural practices, but also of providing a rich and interesting story about the brand -- one that can help to establish an emotional link with the consumer.

If we are successfully to change attitudes and behaviors, it will be important to provide people with these high levels of reinforcement and feedback. Brands can play a role as a communication vehicle helping to keep people informed about the positive impact of their choices.

To succeed in the future, brands have to be in touch with social trends. They need to understand what matters to people and how attitudes and concerns are changing. To be successful, brands need to be liked, to be trusted, to be important to people and to be inspiring. Addressing sustainability issues can help in all these areas. In time, sustainability will become as natural a component of a successful brand as quality, safety or reliability.

Dorothy MacKenzie is Head of Sustainability at Dragon Brands.

This article first appeared in the June issue of SustainAbility Radar.