Marketing without sustainability
As much as those of us who work in sustainability would love to believe clients and customers are looking for green, buying green and living green, truth is, their top three priorities are still high quality, low price and great service. Therein lays one of today’s greatest challenges for organizations seeking to operate more sustainably while effectively marketing more globally conscious products and services.
At the end of the day, businesses and business leaders are still driven by lower costs and revenue growth. Every sustainability initiative must serve those ends or it becomes another philanthropic activity. Yet most organizations, even those on the leading edge, struggle with how to drive and message sustainability, both internally and externally. It's no wonder most consumers are confused about who the leaders are in the sustainability arena.
A recently released study conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM, 2012), measuring the difference between consumer perceptions on sustainability and organizational realities for 100 top global brands, brings this disconnect into sharp relief. While there has been a dramatic increase in and commitment to corporate sustainability, perception about sustainability leadership has more to do with successful communication strategies than actual efforts.
Out of 100 companies surveyed, twelve in the top tier of sustainability leadership for 2011 saw significant declines in perceived stewardship despite their increased efforts for greater sustainability. And these slippages occurred at companies we have come to expect at the “greening” forefront including 3M, Colgate-Palmolive, Nokia, IBM, Walt Disney, and Cisco.
At the same time, a number of well-known companies moved up into sustainability leadership positions despite their unchanged environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance. Apple is perhaps one of the best-known companies on this list – a massively successful, global brand, delivering the newest and coolest consumer technology – and yet it remains largely un-penalized by the marketplace for its consistently low public rankings in sustainability.
Why is marketing sustainability so difficult to distinguish from actual sustainability successes?
First, measuring sustainable business practices is relatively new to the business world. Second, no single standard for measurement, certification and reporting has been adopted across industry sectors. Third, organizations often focus on sustainability as a siloed project or program and not as a strategic imperative.
So where do organizations go to find both operational and marketing successes when seeking greater community engagement, higher give-back and increased responsibility in their actions?
This growing dilemma was highlighted at the recent GoGreen conference in Portland, OR, which called for a different approach to integrating sustainability more fully into business results. The new focus on sustainability is about whole systems, strategy and top-to-bottom clarity and alignment. In other words, sustainability in most organizations is, or should be, about effective change management.
The agenda for sustainability should be focused on business integration and business results. Organizations should concentrate on utilizing sustainability to lower costs, drive revenue, improve brand reputation, and maintain customer loyalty. This approach also creates the right environment for an effective communication strategy.
At one of the more provocative GoGreen keynotes, "We Hate Sustainability": Moving Beyond The S-Word, Nick Barham, from Weiden+Kennedy, provided example after example of mainstream and highly ineffectual, sustainability messaging. Barham’s point about current organizational advertising was clear. Despite the advertised plethora of greened logos, green forests and treed stream sides, at the end of the day, customers still want cheaper, better, newer, faster and easier – not greener! Sustainability attributes in products may influence a small part of the market, but they have little effect on the general population.
Proving Barham's point is the dismal performance of "green" branded products. According to Greenbiz in 2011, "no environmentally preferred car, carpet, cosmetic, cleaner, clothing, coffee, credit card or cell phone has captured more than 2% of its respective market."
The bottom line – if you want an effective sustainability message, throw out the "S" word and let your innovations speak about their positive impacts on a greener world.
A good example is Tesla’s electric car advertising, which makes no mention of sustainability. Instead, like every effective car ad, the message is all about performance, speed and brilliant aesthetics. There is no mention of miles per charge, lowered operating costs or fuel savings. The car is the message about sustainable responsibility!
So how do we connect the "S" word with real, customer-focused results and create an effective message?
First, sustainability practitioners using the language of business will drive long term sustainability far quicker than waiting for business to learn the language of sustainability. Let your innovations and your actions do the talking. Message your efforts around the effects sustainable processes have had in creating or supporting better products and services (innovation), in bringing greater clarity and alignment to your organization (quicker customer response times and lowered costs) or in filling consumer’s needs after measuring and reporting [your] carbon footprint (transparency and business conduct).
Second, think and live inside your organization in the places where it excels. In the old days this was termed, “stick to the knitting.” For most companies, sustainability is an after-thought moving slowly but steadily to the forefront. You’ll get there best by innovating the products, services and processes you know best. But this requires seeing them now and into the future through the lens of sustainable business practices.
Third, focus leadership and change management around strategy, governance, employee engagement, measurable goals, execution readiness, ethical business conduct, and internal and external transparency. Research demonstrates that successful sustainability strategies require the assessment and long-term coordination of a business' foundational pillars. Industry leaders in sustainability excel in these specific areas.
Our experience shows there are measurable, bottom-line results in organizations that identify and solve the disconnects in perceptions and performance within these eight critical areas. Clarity, alignment and employee engagement all hinge on seeing these separate pillars as a unified foundation for sustainable business practices. This is where the real progress is made in effective sustainability initiatives and messaging.
The irony is that achieving sustainability goals through innovation and better performing products and services is exactly what needs to happen if authentic sustainability is to be adopted across industry sectors. Frame your sustainability efforts as sustainable business practices, identify and solve the disconnects in these foundational pillars and focus your internal and external messaging around the customer's needs – all with a healthy respect for authentic green – and you’ll achieve sustainable results with or without the S word.