[This is the fourth in a series of five guest posts looking at the importance of brand strategy and effective marketing for green and ethical businesses. For post one, click here, for post two, click here, and for post three, click here.]
Being responsible to the environment is a moral act. And morality is not proprietary. If you're a business genuinely committed to sustainability, then you want others to follow in your footsteps. Which means you need to tool your brand to thrive not only in today's market, but also in a world where everyone is green. As we touched on in our second post, Just Because It Saves the World, That Doesn't Make it Popular, sustainability shouldn't be the foundation of your brand. Instead think of it as leverage—as a way to help propel you where you want to be. For a green company, just like any other business, branding needs to be proprietary. It should reflect your company's personality and institutional realities. And, of course, you need to do whatever you do really, really well.
Here are some suggestions to creating a sustainable brand that will thrive when sustainability is commonplace.
Up the ante on your sustainable practices. Recycling might have been a big deal 10 years ago. But today it's simply what you ought to do. There will always be ways to do better. If you're primary point of differentiation is organic, then find ways to use supplies that are local and organic. If you're importing fair trade products, then start offsetting your shipping. Our client, Larry's Beans, was among the first coffee roasters to go 100% fair trade, shade grown and organic. Now they've upped the ante by performing local deliveries with used veggie oil and distributing B-100 biodiesel from their warehouse. Patagonia started by pioneering organic cotton and now they're leading with the use of recycled fabrics.
Use your authenticity. We covered authenticity in detail last week, but it's a point so important it is worth repeating. In ten years, companies will be sustainable because it will be the status quo. If you're doing it now, it's because you're authentically committed to the cause. This gives you an integrity that your competitors lack. Build this into your brand voice now, so it benefits you later. Last year, Hershey's acquired the organic, fair trade chocolate maker, Dagoba. Why did they do this instead of just starting their own brand? Because they knew they didn't have the credibility. Dagoba's authenticity as a pioneer is what makes it valuable -- but it will only retain its value, if the brand continues to build on it. (You can't simply rely on consumers to remember you were there first.)
Translate sustainability into superior quality. To stay with the example of chocolate -- the use of fair Trade, organic cacao imposes a transparency that allows chocolate makers to say where their cacao is from -- just like fine wines and singe-malt scotches. Whole Foods has grown by emphasizing the connection between "organic" and "gourmet." Perhaps the best integration of quality and sustainability is the tenets of the slow food movement, which has always expressed sustainable eating habits as acts of sensual, gastronomical delight.
Use the opportunity to educate consumers to build relationships with them. As discussed in my first post, if you're a business pioneering sustainability, you have to educate people to extract the value of your actions. When Toyota introduced the Prius, they also opened a dialogue with people. Education is an opportunity to relate to your consumers -- to talk to them and to listen to what they say. This is how relationships are built. And relationships build loyalty. Simple Shoe's commitment to sustainability has given them something most shoe companies lack -- the subject matter to launch a conversation with their consumers. This in turn gives them an opportunity to be charming and unassuming. It's just like being at a cocktail party. You make more memorable conversation when you actually have something to talk about.
Get acquired by the Discovery Network. This recently announced deal makes complete sense from the perspective of being more than green. Treehugger's success thus far is based on its capability to deliver fresh news and information about the latest goings on in the green world. The Discovery Network is based on a more enduring proposition—namely, trying to entertain 1.5 billion human beings with fact-based content. The deal enables Treehugger to reach a broader audience—and in the process, develop the very capabilities required to thrive in a world where "green" news is common.
This post is the fourth of five focusing on the marketing advantages of businesses that care as much about the planet as profits. The first post addressed the need for sustainable businesses to differentiate themselves from their competitors and the second post addressed the need to align sustainability with people’s existing values. The third post looked at how sustainability can bring authenticity to a brand, and the fifth and final post will look at the theory and practice of all of the above.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic.
[Disclosure: This guest post was arranged through TreeHugger writer Sami Grover, who also works for The Change as the company's Director of Sustainability and Media Liaison]