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Truth or Dare: Advanced Analytics Reveal How Consumers Really Feel About Sustainability

By Emma Hrustic and David Trahan


Advanced Analytics

"Social media platforms have created a vast and expanding universe of valuable information . . . The trick is finding the nuggets of relevant and useful insight and using them wisely to inform a brand’s sustainability strategy."

Is sustainability something people really care about, or is it a passing fad conjured up by the media? With the latest “social listening” tools, you can find out what people are actually saying about sustainability in their day-to-day interactions on social media platforms, blogs, discussion forums, and websites. The resulting insights are often deeper and more accurate than formal surveys. And they are available in real time so that you can know what people are thinking right now -- not last month or last year.

Social listening or social media monitoring can help you gain a general understanding of the public’s view on sustainability. Is it an important issue for consumers? What are they most concerned about? What turns them on or off? Which segments of the population are most interested? Where are the most passionate conversations taking place? Which individuals or blogs are exerting the most influence?

The tools can also provide additional targeted insights about a specific company or brand. They can help you tailor your products, business activities, and marketing efforts to better address the needs and preferences of the market. These insights can also help you address potential problems and shape conversations about your company and brand. Social listening tools can even be used to better understand what your competitors are doing, and how you stack up against them. In fact, if you are using social listening tools and your competitors aren’t, you could end up knowing more about their customers and business than they do.

Sifting through a universe of information

Social media and the web have created a vast and expanding universe of valuable information about consumer preferences and perceptions. The trick is finding the nuggets of relevant and useful insight and using them.

Social listening tools can be programmed to automatically monitor the entire electronic universe of public discourse – including social media platforms, blogs, discussion forums, and websites – scanning for relevant postings and discussions that can give you a look inside the mind of today’s consumer. Results are generated in real time, so they always reflect the most up-to-date information available. This is extremely useful under any circumstances – but is especially critical for an issue like sustainability where public preferences and perceptions are constantly shifting and evolving.

"Tracing ideas and discussions back to the source gives you an opportunity to join conversations - and shape them as they occur in some cases. "
Putting your expertise to use

Only part of the value of social listening comes from the tools you use. For the most part, many of them provide the same information. It is your role as an expert in your category that allows you to conduct the right kinds of searches, filter out what you know is irrelevant, and analyze what you see through the appropriate lens. The conversations you see can be interpreted many different ways to serve different functions. This type of analysis requires a significant time investment, but is what allows you to get tangible and actionable value.

Whether you’re involved in social media or not, you’ll also need a fluent understanding of how people use social media in order to find the types of conversations that will help you most. Knowing how your audiences use different platforms and the language they use to talk about the subject you’re researching is crucial.

The untold story

Traditional market surveys are powerful tools, but they have a number of significant limitations. First, they tend to be somewhat out-of-date since they are conducted infrequently and require time to analyze. Second, they are based on what consumers think they think, which does not always align with reality. Third, they are limited to a relatively small sample size. Last, but certainly not least, they only obtain answers to the questions you thought to ask – which could mean missing out on issues that are either emerging or hidden.

Advanced Analytics

Putting the puzzle pieces together

While social listening is a valuable and unmatched source of insights, it only represents one part of a larger picture. Behaviors expressed in social media are accurate, but they only show us what people choose to say – not everything that they think or feel. Combining social listening insights with traditional research ensures that all bases are covered.

Social listening can often be used to fill in information gaps or add extra dimensions of insights to a specific topic. Approaching social listening with a specific question in mind makes the process of sifting through the conversation much easier. Since you cannot ask consumers questions in social listening, you have to ask yourself the questions and then use your understanding of the topic and the target consumer to find the answers.

Influencing the influencers

Another powerful feature of social listening is that it doesn’t just tell you what’s being said, it tells you exactly who’s saying it. Tracing ideas and discussions back to the source gives you an opportunity to join conversations - and shape them as they occur in some cases. It also enables you to precisely target your marketing and communications at the individuals and information sources that exert the greatest influence on public perceptions.

This needs to be handled tactfully, of course. Company representatives that contribute genuinely useful insights to online discussions are usually welcomed – especially if they are fair and unbiased (or are at least open about their biases). On the other hand, representatives who are merely moles or shills attempting to subvert the discussion and promote the company’s own agenda can expect a much colder reception – and are likely to do more harm than good.

Advanced Analytics

Getting started

The barriers to entry for social listening are quite low. The tools are typically cloud-based, so there is no upfront capital investment, and ongoing costs are minimal. So, in most cases, the best way to get started with social listening is simply to give it a try. You’ll quickly realize how social listening can help your organization to better understand how its sustainability investments are perceived by the public – and if they are, in fact, building brand value, driving revenue and securing long-term consumer loyalty.

Emma Hrustic is a Strategy Director and David Trahan is a Verbal Identity Consultant in Interbrand’s New York office.

For more on this topic, read I’ll Be Your Mirror, a white paper written by Nora Geiss, a Director and Digital Strategist in Interbrand’s New York office.