Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

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
Browse more Expert Design blogs

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.