Sustainability Must Go Mainstream
Punk rock wouldn't be very punk if everyone listened to it. This isn't the case with the sustainability movement — which, as we argued in our first guest post on why green branding and marketing is important, isn't going to "sustain" anything unless everyone gets on board. Good-for-the-world businesses need to express sustainability as the vibrant, exciting, game-changing proposition it is if we are going to engage a critical mass of people and take sustainability firmly into the mainstream. We should put our heart and souls into what we do. And that means we need to differentiate ourselves. And you can't do that by using the same typeface as everyone else. You can't do it by basing your logo on a leaf or by putting a hand cupping a seedling on the cover of your annual report. You can't do it by being yet another green business to use a tag line that says "Saving the planet one [your product here] at a time." But there are plenty of ways to stand out from the crowd...
Category Membership vs. Brand Identity
If sustainability is the only thing that differentiates your business, then you're positioning yourself to go out of business as soon as sustainability starts catching on. The twin essences of branding are consistency and differentiation. If you consistently use language and visuals that represent the overall sustainability movement instead of your core business -- all you end up evoking is category membership, as opposed to an actual brand identity. Being a green business and basing your logo on the planet or a leaf would be like Toyota basing its logo on a set of wheels.
Think of sustainability as a lever, not a pedestal. Use it to give your brand an initial lift -- as opposed to building your entire identity on it. Businesses are increasingly moving toward sustainability. In an era when Walmart is actively seeking to switch over to organic cotton (and they are), you'd better not hang your whole brand on the notion of organic.
Brand Appeal Beyond Green
The process of branding begins with understanding your institutional strengths - and it continues with integrating them into all points of contact with your audience(s). A cornerstone of American Apparel's brand proposition has been "sweatshop free". Yet the brand has always been about more than that. The soft cotton jersey they chose along with the tighter fits and founder Dov Charney's unabashed enthusiasm for sexuality -- gave the brand an alternative, youthful sensibility from the start. Early on, the company developed a brand culture that conveyed its enlightened labor practices as a part of a consistent image. An image that conveys authenticity, youth, and sexiness through clean 70's style typography and deliberately non-slick photography. As American Apparel has developed its image as a trend-leader, it has also deepened its commitment to organics and renewables. Whatever you think about this controversial company, they have a lesson to teach in terms of integrating sustainable practices into a brand that has much broader appeal than your average 'green' apparel.
Another example is GE's Ecoimagination initiative which combines sustainability (i.e., "eco") with a core quality of the GE brand (i.e., "imagination"). The basis of the initiative has been to position sustainability as a natural function of GE's longtime strength as an innovator.
Nau: Destined to Fail?
A not-so-good example would be Nau clothing, which recently went under. Nau presented a professionally crafted slick exterior with not much under the hood. The brand's only reason to exist seemed to be to start a sustainable clothing company. While their sustainability initiatives may have been laudible, from a branding perspective there was little else to differentiate Nau from any other slick clothing company. There was no singular perspective, no core characteristics. Compare Nau to Loomstate, whose consistent use of black and white illustration and rural photographic settings create a distinctive brand persona that feels pure, natural, earnest and hip -- without trying too hard.
Moving Beyond the Cliches of Green Design
Here's some nuts and bolts counsel. A logo is precious visual real estate. It's core job is to provide a visual identifier that belongs to you. To the extent you use common visual signifiers that belong to your category rather than your individual business -- you fail to differentiate your brand. What does the Starbucks mermaid logo have to do with coffee? Nothing. But it has everything to do with Starbucks. Along the same lines, a leaf makes a middling logo for a green printing company. A drop of water is a bad choice for a water-harvesting system brand. And the planet earth makes a bad logo for an organic clothing brand. Similarly, typographical choices should represent the persona of your business, as opposed to a generalized leafy environmentalism. (Papyrus is only a good font choice if you want to look like every other massage therapist, conservation non-profit, or crystal healer in the country!)
If you can't think of anything to associate your business with aside from your eco-goals, then find a different business that you are passionate about. Because business is hard and it's competitive -- if you're not fervent about your core product or service, you will not survive. When my company chooses what clients to accept, one thing that we look at is how dedicated they are to the specific industry they've chosen. Because we have the absolute conviction that any higher-minded business owes it to their mission to outperform their competitors on all fronts, not just the green ones. (And indeed, we ourselves are passionate about the pursuit of creating differentiating brands.) If you can't differentiate yourself, potential customers won't be able to differentiate you either. The challenges of doing this are more than offset by the rewards. Not only will your business be better, you'll have more fun in the process. Good, differentiating branding is a liberating experience.
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.
More From Jerry Stifelman on Green Branding and Marketing
Branding for Non-profits: Why It's Important
Rebirth of the Producer
Greenhushing Doesn't Help Anyone: Why Green Business Should Speak Up
Reality vs. Perception: On Being Born With a Green Spoon in Your Mouth
The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed
Green Branding and Marketing: Who's Out in Front?
Be More Than Green
Authenticity: Get it Free With Your Commitment to Preserve the Earth
Just Because It Saves the World, That Doesn't Make it Popular
The Planet Wants You to Market Really Well