Today, most companies—driven chiefly by a practical need to reduce operational costs—are making efforts to “go green.” While the usual areas of focus like energy efficiency and water conservation remain key components of a greener business, these measures don’t always leave a strong impression on consumers. If a brand’s idea of corporate citizenship is a one-off philanthropic gesture now and then or if sustainability efforts are behind the scenes and only focused on mitigating risk or reducing costs, a brand may be missing opportunities to educate, inspire, engage and ultimately lift brand value.
In Interbrand’s just-released Best Global Green Brands 2013 report, we examine sustainability performance, but also how consumers perceive the sustainability efforts of top brands. In the study we conducted, we found that, overwhelmingly, consumers look to the products and services that a brand offers as proof of their commitment to environmental sustainability. This is one explanation for the high performance of the automotive sector in this year’s report. 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.
People tend to trust what is more visible to them, what is real and tangible—which is why the products and services they actually use, along with marketing and messaging for those products and services, make more of an impact on them than corporate claims of sustainability. In fact, in our study, a third of respondents globally agree that the environmental activities of different companies seem very similar (31 percent) and 35 percent do not trust information given by a company about its environmental efforts. So, if operational performance is not enough to gain favor with consumers because a significant number don’t trust corporate reporting or have no awareness of what a company is doing—what lever can a brand pull to build and truly capitalize upon its green reputation?
Our research around consumer perception of brands’ sustainability efforts in ten countries shows that it’s a small but significant influential factor that, all other attributes being equal, the 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. (Read more in Emily Grant and Chloe Frank’s article, The Contribution Equation.)
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 make progress toward sustainability targets and publish these accomplishments in a sustainability report—and, in the age of social media, greenwashing is no longer an option either.
To stay socially relevant, businesses need to give back in significant ways, communicate about these actions and work to overcome cynicism, while building a reputation that fosters trust and inspires both admiration and participation. As Interbrand’s global Corporate Citizenship practice leader, Tom Zara, puts it: “With all this power to influence, drive demand, and inspire loyalty, brands are uniquely positioned to bring solutions to the marketplace…[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.”
Erica Velis is the content editor and lead writer for Global Marketing and Communications at Interbrand.