Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The “Eight Cs” of Sustainability Branding

Sustainability brands are products and services, which are branded to signify to the consumer a form of special added value in term of environmental and social benefits. A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, or design that identifies the maker or seller of a product or service (although some argue that brands are something that real companies hide behind). However, a brand is also much more than that. It represents the consumers’ perceptions about a product and its performance. It evokes positive or negative feelings, especially in the context of sensitive social and ecological issues. The more positive the perceptions and feelings are towards a brand, the higher will be the likelihood of identification and loyalty amongst consumers. It is therefore crucial in sustainability marketing to build up strong brands (see chapter 7 of “Sustainability Marketing”). To do so, we suggest “eight Cs” of sustainability branding: Core, Co-operative, Credible, Consumer Benefits, Conversational, Consistency, Commitment, and Continuity (inspired by and adapted from the “The five Cs of Sustainability Branding” by Marc Stoiber and “A sixth C for Sustainability Branding: Consistency” by Perrine Bouhana).

Core: The starting point of credible sustainability marketing is the socio-ecological impacts of products (see chapter 3 of “Sustainability Marketing”). The thorough assessment of the key socio-ecological problems of products along the entire life cycle by means of the impact matrix or Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is necessary for companies to begin with. Tying sustainability to the key problems and the core business is essential to ensure it resonates with consumers. If a company sells cars, effective brand sustainability strategy would focus on fuel-efficient cars and clean engines or new forms of mobility – not saving some mammal in China (which is worthwile, but not necessarily adding to the sustainability brand value!). BMW, for example, withdrew from Formula One in 2009 to re-direct the financial resources (a couple of hundred million Euro!) to the development of new drive technologies and projects in the field of sustainability. It spends billions in R&D to lead the way towards the next generation of clean vehicles (electric?), and ensure “Freude am Fahren”.

Co-operative: The solutions to the main socio-ecological problems associated with products along the entire life cycle require co-operations with suppliers, retailers, consumers, scientists, and other non-market actors – both in the process of innovating and marketing sustainable products and services. Interface, for example, partners with a range of individuals and organizations outside the company to help them achieve their “Mission Zero” goal, offer bio-based products and close the loop.

Credible: Solving key socio-ecological problems associated with companies’ products and tying sustainability to the core business are fundamentals of credibility. Co-operations with trustworthy partners and the use of independent, third-party labels can increase the credibility of sustainability brands further. The new, award-winning organic brand “Follow Fish” partners with WWF and uses labels like Bio, MSC and Naturland to signal quality and enhance credibility. In addition to that, the company established an online tracking system, which enables consumers to see the world of behind the fish chain (where it comes from, how it was cultivated, which way it is transported, and where it is stored).

Consumer Benefits: For most consumers, socio-ecological attributes are not core benefits. Usually, socio-ecological characteristics just play an auxiliary role. Many sustainable products of the first generation suffered from “sustainability marketing myopia”, i.e. the myopic focus on socio-ecological attributes over the broader expectations of consumers (e.g. fair trade coffee with a bitter taste, textiles with fading colors, and natural detergents that did not wash properly). To broaden the appeal of sustainability brands, they should emphasize the inherent consumer benefits of socio-ecological attributes, including efficiency and cost effectiveness, health and safety, symbolism and status; and they should align socio-ecological attributes with benefits such as functionality, design, and durability to create “motive alliances”. Zipcar, the largest car sharing organization of the world, stresses the convenience and the cost savings of its sustainable mobility solution – besides helping the environment and being “zipster”!

Conversational: Sustainability branding is more effective as a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way announcement. Inviting consumers to participate in a conversation about the sustainability process strengthens the brand-consumer relationship. Take, for example, Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles, an online tool that helps consumers understand Patagonia's steps to make their shirts and pants more sustainably, but also allows them to see the environmental shortcomings, and join the discussion about them.

Consistency: If sustainability is key to brand positioning, it is important to communicate it to and with consumers in a consistent way, including advertising, personal selling, point of sale promotions, online communication and so on. This requires a kind of integrated approach to sustainability communication. In addition to that, the sustainability product brand has to be consistent with the overall environmental and social performance of the company. If a company makes claims about a specific environmental or social benefit of their products, this could become counterproductive if they are shown to use a highly polluting production process or one that exploits labour in poorer countries. From this perspective the means of production and the behaviour of the entire company becomes a part of the ‘product’ that the consumer buys. In this way sustainability marketing is different to mainstream marketing. All aspects of corporate social and environmental performance become relevant to the consumer and liable to influence their behaviour. This requires companies to approach the management of sustainability performance, and communication about it, holistically.

Commitment: Sustainability branding also requires the commitment of top management and marketing decision makers, not ‘just’ the PR department responsible for CSR reports and the sustainability officer in charge of health and environmental management systems (which is a important, but not directly linked to products and brands!). Coop, the second largest Swiss retailer is a good example for its commitment to sustainability. In the year 1993, the co-operative launched the sustainability retail brand “Coop Naturaplan”. At the press conference the CEO and the marketing manager announced the ambitious goal to reach revenues of 400 Swiss million with the new organic food assortment by the year 2000 (at a time when the total Swiss organic food market was estimated at 200 Swiss million!). In the meanwhile sustainability has become an integral part of part of the entire business (including marketing and category managers), and Coop thrives due to its sustainability retail brands.

Continuity: Sustainability is more than a one-off campaign. It must be incorporated into the DNA of the brand. It must reflect the core values of the brand and contribute to delivering the brand promise over the long-term. This means that a brand cannot change its sustainability focus or ‘cause’ too often, or engage in too many non-related areas. Every brand effort has to be mutually supportive in order to achieve the broader sustainability brand promise.


  1. Great piece. You took my 5C's and made them better. Keep me posted on new articles.


    Marc Stoiber

  2. Dear Marc, thank you for your positive feedback! You might want to at another "C", i.e. clarity (as mentioned in our recent post "Employees as Sustainability Brand Ambassadors"). Best wishes, Frank
    PS: If you join the followers or the facebook group "Sustainability Marketing" you will be informed about new articles.

  3. Many marketing tips are very useful to impress to my business task process. Thanks for sharing information.

  4. Try applying these 8'C to real engineering industries and you will be laughed at.

  5. you have done a great work .......... its really working and important for us. so please keep sharing ....
    Branding and Advertising

  6. @rinisha: Thank you very much for your feedback and encouragement. I had a look at your company mp9 digital. Looks very interesting. Good luck! Do you also customers offering sustainable producs and services? It might be an interesting Indian story to share with our blog readers. If so, please, contact me via email:
    Thank you! Best, Frank

  7. Hi, great work dear authors.Thank you for posting it.

    I'd like to apply some of the tips on my start-up home-based animal probiotics and organic disinfectant business in Manila. This is an idea that grew out of my desire to help people address the problems of toxic household chemical cleaners, water pollution, and food safety.

    Being a microbiologist, I gave an activity for my students and they used lactic acid bacteria for their pet dogs. With fantastic results and amazed students, I decided to commercialize the idea for agriculture and domestic applications. The challenge for me is the lack of locally available bio-plastic liquid containers like PLA, which would make my business truly environmentally-sustainable.

    I am an instructor of Environmental Science at The University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines. The 3C's of the university are competence, commitment and compassion.

    With various socio-economic and political problems in my country,
    environmental sustainability is far from sight. Achieving the top scores in CPA examinations is the main agenda for the university, whereas shaping environmentally sensitive accountants may not be that high in the agenda.

    Yours truly,
    Neil Ian

  8. Branding should both precede and underlie any marketing effort. Branding is not push, but pull. Branding is the expression of the essential truth or value of an organization, product, or service. One should always have good brand marketing company to take it on another level.

  9. I have always believed that it is really important to communicate your brand position with your consumers and there's a lot of ways to do it, from the traditional to digital marketing.

  10. Fantastic post and some real value on sustainability marketing.

    In these days, things are becoming so competitive and only the best brands rise to the top.


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  15. Just joined the 'comment group', it's a helpful piece.

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