Using the Power of Brands to Change the World: Sustainability Performance Alone
Isn’t Enough

By Tom Zara

Brands have a pervasive presence in our lives. Their influence is, today, inescapable. In a time of many choices—too many choices—people will naturally begin looking at brands more selectively. As they use the information and impressions available to them to make choices—and as concern about the environment, the treatment of workers, and long-term sustainability grows—corporate citizenship will increasingly determine which brands consumers invite into their lives—and which ones they reject.

In the past, the bond between consumer and brand was about a transaction based on desire. Now, the relationship is more complex and multi-faceted. It involves the transfer of values and the collective creation of reputation. It is increasingly the case that the products and services people choose have just as much to do with a compatibility in values and a sense that a brand is socially and environmentally responsible. This feeling of connection and compatibility, even intimacy, creates advocacy—and when you’ve created advocacy, you’ve created not only a buyer, but also a promoter.

In our annual Best Global Green Brands report, promoter scores, which assess the likelihood that the buyer will recommend a brand to others, are becoming a more and more revealing measurement of brand effectiveness. It’s no longer just about performance—which is why companies that focus primarily on performance don’t always achieve the recognition they deserve, build a loyal following or succeed in differentiating themselves from competitors. Superior performance is a fleeting achievement—it’s only a matter of time before another brand catches up. Samsung’s Galaxy and Apple’s iPhone are functionally comparable but, outside the Western hemisphere where Apple could be a coveted brand, Samsung reigns supreme. Right now, it’s the largest selling phone in the world.

Research that we conducted as part of this year’s Best Global Green Brands report shows that balancing performance and perception is more important than ever. We asked more than 18,000 consumers in 10 global markets (Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, and the United States) if they can trust the information a company provides on its environmental efforts. The results were quite surprising, especially when you break them down by market. In the UK, 35 percent of consumers feel that they can’t trust the information companies supply about their environmental efforts compared to 38 percent in France, 39 percent in Italy, and 41 percent in Germany. In Asia, 18 percent of Japanese consumers don’t trust this information. The number is much higher in China, with 32 percent of respondents saying they don’t trust companies’ environmental reports. Consumers in the remaining three BRICs also demonstrate a high degree of distrust; Brazil at 40 percent, Russia at 42 percent, and India at 34 percent. In the US, it’s 32 percent.

So what do consumers trust? Overwhelmingly, consumers look to the products and services that a brand offers as proof of their commitment to environmental sustainability. The numbers ranged from 36 percent in the US to over 67 percent in Brazil. This is one explanation for the high performance of the automotive sector in the 2013 Best Global Green Brands study. These brands have invested in creating innovative products that serve as clear evidence of their commitment to sustainability (e.g., Toyota Prius, Ford EcoBoost, Nissan LEAF) and as a result, are receiving more recognition from consumers.

If we establish that consumers are concerned about environmental issues, and they think that purchasing eco-friendly products and services help address environmental issues, why are consumers unwilling to pay more for these products, or even consider the environmental impact of their purchases? If the performance advantage alone is not enough because a significant number of consumers don’t trust your reporting—and if offering an eco-conscious product that consumers claim to be willing to pay more for is not enough to change their behavior —what lever can a brand pull that isn’t contingent on price, features, or functionality?

A mutual compatibility around worldview

In our research around consumer perception of brands’ sustainability efforts, we’ve found that it’s a small but significant influential factor that, all other attributes being equal, a perception that a brand is a good employer, good to the earth, practices what it preaches, and otherwise displays the characteristics of a good corporate citizen, it will be chosen versus a competitor. At the end of the day, having the power to influence choices translates into money. The key to that power is the brand, its image, reputation, and the multitude of messages, gestures, and efforts that build the collective perception of who it is, what it stands for—and how trustworthy it is. Today, it's no longer enough to be “less bad” than competitors. To stay socially relevant, businesses need to give back in significant ways.

The leverage that corporate citizenship brings becomes monetized the moment a consumer chooses your product over someone else’s. And the power to use your brand as an instrument of change multiplies with every purchase. We already know that brands have the power to persuade people to adopt new fashions, try new foods, drive a different car, or visit vacation destinations around the world. Brands are constantly inviting people to change their behavior and try something new. When consumer desires align with a brand’s offer, the transaction that follows translates into choice, preference, and loyalty—in our view, the three tenets of any strong brand. With all this power to influence, drive demand, and inspire loyalty, brands are uniquely positioned to bring solutions to the marketplace and create greater alignment between individual choices and positive collective outcomes.