Why Sustainability can extinguish brands (and how to prevent it).

WARNING : this is NOT an article against “sustainability” per se, i.e. supporting long-term ecological balance, but an analysis of how the immoderate use of this topic can erode brands’ differentiation and value. Whilst “sustainability” is necessary, read here why we think it can hinder brand differentiation, and should not be an excuse for weak brand positioning.

Today’s on-going “sustainability” noise cannot be missed: some brands claim it is in their DNA, others push alarmist messages and others find a new found virtue while claiming it is “what consumers demand”… To top everything, “greenwashing” is now the worse insult for a brand, even if some are directly responsible of only a fraction of their carbon emissions.

We live in times where the care for the environment is a must. And rightly so, because brands – as members of society – have a duty towards their community. Gone are the days of careless production and pollution. However, there seems to be a “lemming’s effect” towards a unique messaging and some critical thinking is required when it comes to brand definition.

Our hypothesis is that a polarization of brand actions and messaging around sustainability only is detrimental to brands, for 3 reasons :

1 – Same topic by all = no differentiation at all

If every brand spends its air time only on sustainability topics, every brand will end up talking about the same thing and there will be no space to transmit their respective functional or emotional points of differences. This in turn can level off differentiation points consumers need to chose brands and they will relate only to packaging, pricing or positive memories.

“Sustainability” is becoming a hygiene factor in many categories, i.e. a point that must be addressed to be eligible to make business in a category. Think of bio wines a few years ago: They were a novelty, but now the number of brands doing bio has litterally exploded and these brands cannot count on their “green label” only to attract consumers. They have to push their functional and emotional benefits, i.e. develop and build an attractive Promise. Or do price cuts.

2 – No resources left to cut through the clutter

Few brands have enough advertising budget to drive awareness and consideration. The very vast majority of brands are medium or small, with very little reinvestment capabilities in communication (and don’t think that Social Media comes for free or is always more cost effective than traditional media). If only Sustainability messages are given budget priority, there can be little resources left to talk about other functional and emotional benefits and achieve breakthrough to be noticed (awareness, awareness…).

Whilst we are on the “resources” topic, consider that consumers too have a certain “resource”, i.e. mental availability (cf. Byron Sharp), so a multiplication of messages can be detrimental to drive message memorability. So, if “Sustainability” is given total priority over other brand messages, then again, it may limit differentiation.

3- Brands are here to entertain, not to constrain

Unless a brand was born to actually do something for the environment, it hard for it reconcile its initial purpose to satisfy a consumer’s dreams. From a philosophical stand point, this means an opposition between letting desires speak vs. complying with obligations, i.e. “I want to” vs. “I have to”. In other words, brands often sell dreams and freedom, whereas Sustainability is an obligation (otherwise we run into a catastrophic situation).

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So, what can be done ?

For a start, a good marketeer should not adopt a “Sustainability” approach as a replacement to a weak or non-existent Brand Positioning or to rediscover a newly found virtue (unless, again, the Brand was really born to address Sustainability issues). Tackling this issue requires answering 2 questions :

A- What is your Brand positioning ?

Brand Positioning is “where we want the brand to sit in its consumers’ mind relative to their needs and competition offering”. A good brand positining is expressed as the most important emotional benefit to a defined audience and supported by a product / service performance.

B- How does Sustainability relate with our Brand Positioning ?

The answer here is crucial and informs every strategy aspects of a brand. There are 2 cases :

If a brand was born to explicitly address environmental aspects, then Sustainability should be at its core. Not only will this be a legitimate topic, but it will become a “reason to believe” that will underpin the emotional promise. Think of Patagonia who “use business to protect nature”, Green Toys which are made of 100% recyclable materials or Beyond Meat who believes “there is a better way to feed our future by shifting from animal to plant-based meat and therefore positively affect growing environmental issues and animal welfare”.

If a brand was not born to address an environmental aspect, Sustainability should not be at its core. The best sense check for that is to check the Brand Promise. For instance, Johnnie Walker is about “inspiring personal progress”, a promise that meets an individual’s drive to move ahead in life. In this case, the Sustainability topic is not at the brand core and should not be at the center of communications, and leaves the space to develop and express the brand’s functional and emotional differentiation points.

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Does this mean that a brand should not address its environmmental issues? Of course not. Any brand should strive to reduce its carbon footprint and pollution. But in this case, these Sustainability efforts should not be the center of the brand’s communication : this task should be entrusted to the corporation, or the contents should be directed to specific stakeholders.

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