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.