The Age Of The Sustainable Brand

Paul FriederichsenNovember 21, 20225 min

There has been a lot in the news about “The Great Reset” when it comes to converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Brands should also consider another kind of “reset” … one that deals with marketing themselves as sustainable. There’s no doubt that a greater emphasis on sustainability is here to stay and will affect how business responds, especially when it comes to marketing themselves. But the right response is no longer whether your business is sustainable or not. (That is expected to be a given at this point, anyway.) The correct response is that you are helping your customer or employee or community to live more sustainably. That’s what should drive brands to ‘reset’ their marketing commitments, activities, and communications going forward.

Brands Are Meant To Serve

As we know, well-defined brands make it easier for companies to separate themselves from their competitors and reach their markets in a more influential and compelling way. From the customer’s perspective, however, the real purpose of brands is to serve them. Traditionally, brands serve their customers by making their purchase decisions easier, satisfying their needs with greater value, and improving the quality of life with trusted, reliable consistency. However, those things are no longer enough.

Resetting Brands To A New, Sustainable Role

In the new reality of climate change, global warming, and social ethics, the traditional four Ps of marketing (Product, Price, Place, Promotion) lack sufficient relevance to connect and motivate most consumers. The great reset for brands requires companies to also consider “People, Planet, and Profit.” This “Triple Bottomline” informs how companies achieve a sustainable direction that goes beyond simply maximizing profits as the end-all, be-all of strategic goal setting. That is because the reset of brands that these companies create, manage, and market must appeal to a new, dominate consumer force: Millennials.

Generational Imperative

Millennials, defined as a group born between 1982 and 1996, have now surpassed the Baby Boomer generation in terms of population (72.12 million vs. 70.68 million). More so than Boomers, Millennials tend to prioritize environmental wellness, human health, resource security, fair trade, and social equity above all else. The adage in business that “all things being equal, a brand with a sustainable reputation is a tie-breaker and nothing more” is becoming less and less true. Millennials are having children, buying homes, and selecting products in a world they are inheriting – and where many believe is a world in crisis. They want brands that are on the same page with them so they will be willing to part with some of the billions in annual spending power they possess. In fact, almost 1/3 of Millennials are worried about climate change and 70% of them will pay more for brands that support a cause they care about, according to recent studies.

The difference in approaching the Millennial market is best summed up by this quote from “sustainability solutionist” Solitaire Townsend: “…talking about your own values isn’t enough, consumers want you to help them live theirs. And that’s the secret to true purpose – serving the consumer rather than talking about yourself. Too much of the cause-related-marketing, sustainability or CSR activities of brands promote what the company is doing, rather than helping the consumer to make their own difference.”

Sustainable Marketing

In our new reality, evidence of sustainability must be more than bulleted product features, and certification badges. You may have successfully checked a box, but have you truly communicated your brand’s commitment to what 88% of Millennials want—for the brands they purchase to help them make a difference. Aside from avoiding the notorious tendency to engage in “green washing,” brands should instead embrace ways to engage their consumers in People, Planet, and Profit issues that hit home. It is not enough to say you are green. You must practice green. And show ways your customers can do so, too.

According to Green Business Bureau.com, this is often easier said than done. “In 2019, a mere 16% of executives stated sustainability as a built-in business function. The majority (50%) of organizations thought sustainability was ‘fairly well’ integrated, as opposed to an ideal ‘extremely well’ target.” The article goes on to observe that the lack of integrating sustainability into the corporate mindset “stems from defective structure, planning and discipline.” And to “… bridge this gap, businesses need a clearly defined sustainability program.” No doubt these percentages have changed since 2019, but the many businesses have work to do, even now, and their brands must reflect their mission.

How ‘Reset’ Brands Work

Helping your consumer to live more sustainably and make a difference can involve any number of methods for reset brands. This can range from developing products with lower environmental impact, to supporting local community groups, and/or advocating for a healthy work-life balance for employees.

What reset brands have in common is that they are doing more than achieving an environmental certification (as important and costly as that is) or touting their own environmental credentials (as necessary and impressive as they are). They are showing by example, how they value environmental wellness, human health, resource security, fair trade, and social equity. These activities, events, and commitments are the genuine outgrowth of corporate consciousness for helping consumers, employees, and communities to live more sustainably.

How You Can Do A Brand Sustainability Reset

Brands that have been successful in sharpening their sustainability reputation and connection with their customers are led by a sustainability officer—someone who is dedicated to the direction, implementation, and marketing of the sustainability efforts – and in coordination with the C-suite, HR, and marketing departments. But you need not be a multi-million or billion-dollar corporation to operate as a sustainable brand. You need a plan, determine what initiatives to tackle, make social responsibility initiatives part of your plan, and communicate your stance and your activities to everyone. For an in-depth look at a 10-step plan, see How to Create a Sustainability Program: A 10 Step Guide to Creating a Purpose-Driven Business.

Brands that are not empathetic to their consumers’ priorities are not positioned to succeed, long term. They will increasingly become irrelevant and lose market share to other brands that are. On the other hand, brands that reset their sustainability posture and helping their customers to live that way by leadership and example, will continue to grow.

It is time to reset.

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