As we continue to emerge from the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression, consumers will remain shell-shocked. Perhaps the greatest advance in sustainability over the last three years has been the global decline in consumption. When consumers do buy, they are more thoughtful, considering not just where and how products are created, but whether they really need them at all. I believe this is the beginning of a long-term shift in purchase behavior, moving from wanton, willy-nilly buying sprees into a more considered approach to consumption.
What is the implication of this for brands?
Brands have two challenges. The first is to convince consumers that their product or service will make a noticeable difference in consumers' lives and that they are worthy of being purchased. They must make their functional benefits overt and apparent. Consumers will no longer be willing to try out sustainable products just for their greenness--brands must differentiate themselves in other ways, too. In these days of cautious consumerism, products have to prove superior functionality or risk remaining on the shelf.
The second challenge for sustainable brands is to be specific about their green claims. Gone are the days of fuzzy, friendly labels like "natural." Since 2005, we've seen a major increase in consumers' understanding of sustainability. Smart consumers now look for facts and figures detailing which chemicals their cleaning products contain, how much energy is used to create and transport a piece of furniture, and the true carbon footprint of a pair of sneakers. If brands can't provide this hard data, consumers will turn to sources like the GoodGuide and other champions of transparency to learn the truth.
Which brands will stand out?
Despite the ongoing interest in sustainability, few mainstream consumer brands have smoothly incorporated this attribute into their brand promise and image. Clorox Green Works aside, the best-known green brands are niche players such as Tom's of Maine and Seventh Generation. Landor's annual ImagePower® Green Brands Survey shows that consumers think of corporate brands such as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Walmart, and General Electric as more sustainable than their product brands. The challenge for corporate brands is to find ways of extending this green halo onto their product and service brands.
Electric cars are poised for plenty of press attention in 2011, a significant year for the car market, when three electric cars will all be available in the United States: Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla.
The burning question for 2011
How can we achieve a balance between reducing consumption of resources and encouraging consumers to purchase sustainable products?