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Can Brands Launch Sustainable Campaigns Without Being Accused of Greenwashing?

Vancouver Convention Centre

It's not easy being green—especially if you're a company. Consumers in the United States have cooled on sustainable brands, due primarily to the economy. Most want to do the right thing, but marketers were slow to demonstrate the economic value of some green brands.

And consumers have also become much more savvy about knowing what brands really are green and which ones aren't. So if a company suddenly launches its first sustainable campaign, people get suspicious.

Believable brand positioning is based on the compelling truths, or pillars. The most respected brands that get credit for their policies on social responsibility are the ones that live it, not just promote it. For these brands, building their brand around sustainability was not a choice. Its part of their personality. So it's believable.

GE is a great example of a company probably not thought of as sustainable even a few years ago. It now has a complete brand focus on Ecomagination. Having a reputation for polluting the Hudson and then refusing to clean it up, GE made a strategic decision six or seven years ago to turn their brand toward sustainability, knowing they would catch a lot of flak while trying to prove themselves.

As a premier sponsor of the Vancouver Olympics, GE is pressing forward with their new position, explaining how their brand can help our ability to be more green. GE helped renovate the broadcast headquarters, the Vancouver Convention Centre, by adding a rain-catchment system, wastewater-treatment system, and rooftop garden. Just by associating themselves with the Vancouver games (a city that draws nearly 90% of its power from renewable sources), they may just convince the naysayers that sustainability is a key pillar. GE now has to begin living sustainability. With a true move in their product development criteria, this should not be a problem.

Audi is another great example of a brand that believes sustainability is here to stay, and the auto-maker is poised to enjoy the benefits of being green. Their Super Bowl commercial, "Green Police," was some of the first evidence. Dismissed by many as greenwashing, it appears that Audi, and its parent, Volkswagen, intend to pursue greener technology in earnest. Volkswagen just announced they have developed a diesel hybrid that gets 170 mpg.

The Audi brand has proven its pillars of innovation, performance, and technology over the years, so owning sustainability as an attribute isn't far fetched. The tone and manner of the "Green Police" commercial message may have missed a bit, but their intention, at least in their actions, seems sincere.

In fact, Audi AG has been funding environmentally responsible projects for several years now. One example is their work in solar power. They are now setting new standards in the field of photovoltaics (converting solar radiation to direct current electricity).

Brands like GE and Audi are evolving, and with that evolution there will be skepticism. They must commit to this evolution in everything about their brands, from product development to communications to industry involvement, to prove they are not greenwashing.

The lesson here is simple. If your brand reflects the true values and pillars of your company, it's not necessary to re-calibrate the brand to become sustainable. Brands do not have to reinvent themselves with every fad, trend, or movement. But they should be true to their pillars. Brand managers must observe and listen to the emotions their brand evokes, rather than "tell" the brand what to do. Likewise, they must be students of their consumers to fully understand them. Through this understanding, they will gain empathy and be able to determine how the brand can grow and evolve. They'll know where the brand can and cannot go, if it can genuinely be green or not.

Convention center via LMN Architects

Jamey Boiter's Brand Innovatr blog
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Jamey Boiter is a nationally recognized brand strategist and practitioner. As BOLTgroup's brand principal, he oversees all brand innovation and graphic design teams. He has received numerous awards, ADDYs, and citations for his work in brand development, packaging, and corporate identity, including award-winning projects for AirDye, Lowe's, IZOD, Nat Nast, G.H. Bass, Marc Ecko, and Forté Cashmere. Jamey has been involved in strategic brand development and design management programs with world-class brands such as Kobalt Tools, Ryobi, Coca-Cola, Kraft, IZOD, and Phillips-Van Heusen, and has been a featured speaker at national conferences and college campuses on the subject of brand strategy, innovation and development.

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  • koann Skrzyniarz

    Hi Toby, Would you give me permission to clone your response which I think is completely dead on. If so, I'll do my part to spread this message around the blog-o-sphere as widely as I am able. Let us not slip in to the false trap of letting perfect be the enemy of the good. As you so beautifully point out, sustainability is a messy frontier with new challenging discoveries around every corner. If we don't allow business to move ahead, and support them in the little steps they are brave enough to take in the face of constant cynical scrutiny, we will never, as a society, get where we need to in time.

    And to those cynical consumers out there, please please please, find the good in incremental moves, regardless of the motive behind them. Support and encourage these behaviors and you will see more of them. In the end, everyone wins -- businesses which flourish on the basis of doing the right thing right, and consumer/citizens, with a wealth of healthy, sustainable products and services to delight in guilt free. The sooner we get it in our heads that punishing bad behavior does not spawn innovation, whereas rewarding good behavior generates more; the sooner we realize that they are we, and we're all in this together; the sooner we realize that it's OK for business to benefit by doing the right thing -- the sooner we will arrive at the future we all need if our children are going to have the opportunity to flourish.
    KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Founder/CEO, Sustainable Life Media

  • Tim Bogert

    It's interesting to watch corporations straddle the fence with the investment in sustainability and social responsibility in the current economic climate. Where it impacts the bottom line in a positive manner, or where the client can get beneficial credit with consumers or their customers, companies are much more willing to invest in sustainability programs. I may be cynical, but there are very few instances where the right thing is done just because it's the right thing. Which is why consumers, government and society have to weigh in to encourage corporate responsibility.

    And if sustainability and social responsibility is to be truly embraced by all within an organization, it has to be nurtured and socialized, and it has to become more than a marketing exercise. Or it runs the risk of being minimized in execution or it becomes yesterday's fad.

  • Kurt Rampton

    Today's consumers are becoming more sophisticated, and they are increasingly skeptical of green claims in products they buy. They now understand that ambiguous "green" product attributes ("recyclable", "all-natural") take a back-seat to comprehensive and progressive business moves like sourcing renewable energy and materials, reducing their manufacturing carbon footprint, etc. If businesses hope to convince consumers they are sincere in their sustainable campaign, they have to make the tough choices and make comprehensive changes to their business. Then their products and services will help tell the story.

  • tobybarazzuol

    Looking to the future of our economy and world, this is a good and timely question to consider. People are often quick to voice their concerns over corporate greenwashing, and in many cases, with good reason. However, if we want companies, and our economy, to evolve towards sustainability (and hopefully beyond) we have to allow them to take their first steps with encouragement.

    The transition towards sustainability is not an easy one and there is simply no way that it can be done overnight - it is an ongoing journey. From our own experience, it was a process of "dipping our toes in the water", feeling it was fine, and then going a little further. The affirmations that we received along the way - both financially and socially - encouraged us to continue the push to become more green. At any point in the process, some could have accused of of "greenwashing" or of not going far enough (and they still can). However, we've never overstated our claims, and we've been transparent and open in our challenges and successes. Our approach has been to maintain a subtle and understated approach to our sustainability commitments. It truly is a journey towards sustainability, and it's one that I don't think has an end point.

    As companies take their first steps towards sustainability, it's important to:
    1. try to determine if they are sincere and real
    2. if they are, then try to support them for those reasons, not attack them for not doing enough. By voting with our dollars we are choosing to fan those embers, not extinguish them.

    Transitioning to a new economy is a complicated and messy process - there is no reference guide for what is happening and what needs to happen in the world of business. So before we attack companies for trying to step in the right direction, let's make sure that there aren't other places we could better focus our energies.