It wasn't long ago that the term "sustainability" was used to describe the growth potential of any particular brand. Today sustainability has been significantly broadened to take in the green and ethical dimensions of a business. Sustainability now covers the full triple bottom line: planet, people, and profits. Integrating sustainability into a business and brand entails challenges as well as opportunities for success. Here we look at 10 features of green brand success.
Rather than just a link to ethics, or philanthropy; sustainability now tends to be directly associated with growth, entrepreneurship, value, differentiation and competitiveness. For example between 2006 and 2010, General Electric increased revenue and R&D targets on their Ecomagination products from $10 to $20billion and $900million to $1.5 billion respectively; Virgin Travel is set to increase its biofuel business by an estimated 3 billion pounds over the next decade. Organisations like these don't make these sorts of investments lightly...
2. Sustainability as a Brand
Sustainability programmes and initiatives have evolved into umbrella and independent brands. They are therefore subject to the same kind of rules and behaviors that govern all brands - names, logos, identities. And similarly, they will be judged by the same rules-clarity and consistency. We frequently talk about brands as being "promises" ' that must be kept. It's one thing to "spin" Sustainability, a much bigger challenge is to actually deliver on it...
3. Business Lead or Response
In many cases companies are responding more to a general consumer awareness that is yet to strongly articulate itself into actual consumer demand. Key brands are the ones pioneering sustainable products and brands that will guide emerging consumer choices. Businesses that lead the field here will be rewarded with first mover advantages - as they should.
Targets must be set, and progress can really only be demonstrated where commitments have been delivered on. Before broadcasting communications, internal alignment must be attained to ensure the whole business is across various initiatives and specific drives towards sustainability. As with any brand led activity, the first audience to engage and convince is our own people. This of all initiatives is not one 'to launch, then leave.'
Sustainability works at its best when touching all components of a company brand, rather than simply being relegate as an independent marketing or PR component. This is again true of all brand initiatives, but is even more critical in the context of sustainability. Get all parts of the organization behind it, run workshops by division to determine how different divisions and teams can deliver on this, and then check to see what difference they are subsequently making.
6. CEO as Citizen
Having a CEO who drives the brand to a culture of sustainability, or institutes specific programmes is critical for success. Senior level staff who embraced these initiatives, and demonstrate personal commitment to sustainability will cause the issue to be taken deeper into the heart of the company. This is more than the CEO getting involved in a launch or promotion: seek and find ongoing evidence of the CEO's and Executive team's real commitment.
Partnerships with NGO's or other stakeholders can bring associations of sustainability to a brand, and can greatly bring evidence the commitment and bring benefit to a business. Post launch, continued relationships through stakeholder management, dialogue and input can go a long way to building integrity and trust.
One of the most basic problems for any claim of sustainability is a portfolio challenge. A common pitfall is a leading product or brand at odds with other brands or products in the same portfolio. This can cancel out the positive benefits of individual initiatives, and will be promptly seized on by brand detractors. An example was faced by Virgin. They launched a $25 million compeitions for technology for Carbon Capture and Storage as awell as a 3 billion pound investment in biofuels. At the same time they launched Virgin Galactic, a product that would take consumers into outer space - a process that leaves a rather large carbon footprint. So consider implications of initiatives of this size on the entire brand portfolio. If you can't align the entire organization to the loftiest aspiration, then re-set the bar lower, so all can engage, evidence and deliver against the initiative.
While it's understandable that brands are unlikely to be completely sustainable from the outset, it's far better for an honest internal appraisal made at the beginning, rather than for critical outsiders to do it. Be aware that you will need to manage this issue from the get go. In the rush to announce initiatives and set targets, it is easy to forget that these will have to be measured up with tangible results. It's vital to try and reach your targets - seeing is believing. Be open about missed targets (and try to explain why), as again this can be seized upon.
10. Organisational Narrative
It is hard to build a real story of sustainability when there are basic questions about the nature of your business. Many organisations so not want to ask questions around sustainability, nervous that any such approach will require dramatic changes to their organisations entire approach. This can be broken through by rethinking the ways to communicate our essential services - for example selling can also be understood as building trusting relationships founded on mutual understanding. If looked at this way, integrating sustainable practices could be appropriate for a sales based business.
It can be a daunting task to implement sustainable practices across the multiple areas of a company. With sustainability having secured itself as a major concept in today's landscape, it is important for business to consider the implications and challenges of integrating sustainability into their brands. Be mindful of the realities of the business and the portfolio, consider baby steps, evidence progress and quick wins, drive engagement internally, then externally and move forward with confidence and conviction.