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Giving Green Brands The Credit They Deserve
December 7th, 2011
Imagine a brand with a compelling story to tell that would distinguish it from competitors and win over consumers. Now imagine keeping that story under wraps. It may be hard to picture but this is precisely the situation for leading global brands that are making significant but low-profile investments in sustainability initiatives.
Brands such as HP, Danone and Hyundai can be considered environmental leaders; these brands and others like them are greening operations, bringing sustainable products to market and supporting local communities.
One of their major oversights? Not sharing their good works with the marketplace and getting the credit they deserve, as found by Interbrand’s Best Green Brands report. Without the support of a global banner for sustainability efforts, a brand's achievements can go unnoticed by consumers and other stakeholders.
It may seem admirable for a brand to pursue a sustainability agenda without asking for recognition. It may even seem prudent as brands become vulnerable to scrutiny and backlash the moment they stake a claim to sustainability.
But in truth, keeping sustainability initiatives quiet actually does a disservice to the brand.
A company's stance and record on sustainability have become integral components of its brand. In an era of increasing environmental consciousness, consumers and other stakeholders expect brands to take responsibility for a growing list of issues. How a company operates, where inputs are sourced, how products are made, how employees and constituent communities are treated – all of these are fair game for open debate. Companies that address these issues will be rewarded with a buying public that increasingly weighs corporate citizenship when choosing between brands.
So how does a company take a cluster of sustainability programs – whether related to energy use, product innovation or community involvement – and weave them into a credible story that enhances the brand?
Break down the walls between sustainability and marketing
It can start by building stronger links between the sustainability and marketing functions within the organization. These departments are complementary: Sustainability specialists identify opportunities to lessen a company’s environmental impact and increase social contributions; marketers know how to communicate these initiatives in meaningful ways to internal and external audiences.
In fact, some corporate leaders argue that responsibility for sustainability should sit with marketing, as the department holds great influence over product development and consumer choices.
Certainly Unilever is a proponent for merging departments; its chief marketing officer Keith Weed holds both communications and sustainability in his portfolio. Taking a different approach, Coca-Cola has chosen a marketer to helm its sustainability program; its chief marketing officer Beatriz Perez took on the role of chief sustainability officer earlier this year.
Showcase activities with a flagship campaign
Whether one department or two, sustainability initiatives can only add to a brand’s value when the message is taken to market.
The challenge is to move beyond social responsibility reports discreetly tucked away on corporate websites or one-off advertising campaigns with limited impact. Instead, a global corporation making significant investments in greening its supply chain, operations or product line is best served by a larger canvas.
GE set the bar with ecomagination, a program that brought together sustainability philosophy, strategy and communications within one comprehensive framework. Coca-Cola, Unilever and Starbucks appear to be on a similar path with Live Positively, Sustainable Living Plan and Shared Planet respectively. These communication platforms provide both a home and a voice for a broad range of sustainability activities.
Lead the conversation
No communication program today would be complete without considering how to reach target audiences through ever-proliferating social media channels. This is even truer for brands with a sustainability story to tell.
Consumers, the media and other stakeholders are already debating a company’s every environmental and social action and inaction on Twitter and Facebook. It’s time for brands to take part in, and ideally lead, the conversation – particularly those brands with a strong record to stand behind.
And yet, according to Wolfstar Consultancy's Global Social Media and CSR Report, only 9% of the world's largest companies are strategically using social media to support their social responsibility activities.
This leaves companies like Pepsico, IBM and Walmart as standouts among their peers; these brands are among the few who consistently leverage any combination of social media – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, podcasts or RSS feeds – to forward their perspective on sustainability in the public realm.
Getting value out of green
A small clutch of global leaders are getting the formula right. They’re building a bridge between marketing and sustainability departments; giving sustainability initiatives more profile with a flagship campaign; and opening two-way conversations across digital platforms.
The rest should consider how their brands would benefit from going public with a story that counts in a market where green is still a differentiator.