brand story & messaging, sustainable business

Everyone agrees: brands are failing on sustainability—and marketing is part of the problem

Carolyn McMaster | August 5, 2014

New research confirms what the evidence has been pointing to for some time: companies are frustrated because even though consumers say sustainability is important, they aren’t buying it; consumers, on the other hand, say businesses aren’t living up to expectations in sustainability matters.

In short, almost everyone thinks that “business is failing to take care of the planet and society,” says the intro to From Marketing to Mattering, which follows up the UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability with research on the views of 30,000 consumers worldwide. What intrigues me most are the researchers’ conclusions about the need for better marketing.

Essentially, companies are failing to include sustainability in their core purpose. It’s not an integrated part of their brand—it’s an adjunct, something they do over there, in that part of the company, and write up in their CSR report. Brands are not connecting sustainability benefits to their products and services or to what matters to the people who buy them.

The report notes that “traditional skills of marketing have been either absent or detached from companies’ long-term efforts on sustainability.” Businesses offer a lot of facts and figures, but they’re not connecting to buyers emotionally. And people are frustrated that they can’t “easily identify” more responsible brands.

I’m sure that a look at brands with sustainability concerns at their core, such as Patagonia, Method and Plum Organics (to name just three), and the people who use their products would reveal a very different picture. These companies are adept at marketing communications: they tell a strong story that conveys values. And those values, in turn, are clearly reflected in their products, whose beauty and quality make them alluring to customers.

The researchers know this. “More responsible, sustainable brands are desirable and offer competitive advantage to companies able to effectively communicate the message,” the report says, adding that selling sustainability alongside other things people value (price, product quality, availability and service) is “likely to deliver superior returns.”

Yet companies aren’t acting. While most CEOs (76 percent) say they want to integrate sustainability across the business, they are stymied. And here’s the kicker: from 2011 to 2013, the proportion of companies reporting that their marketing function was “engaged” in sustainability dropped from 41 percent to 28 percent. (The report authors used the quotations; they don’t define what’s meant.) And framing sustainability in terms of what matters to people has been “abandoned in favor of a wave of data.”

I’m all for data—it’s needed to back up any claim. But we—brands, marketers and the people we speak to—also need a story that connects to our emotions and values.


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