Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
It’s challenging to find innovative ways to stand out, but it’s even harder to make your purpose-led brand message heard through all the noise.
Speaking at the Sustainable Brands Event 2016 in Sydney, four leading brand experts discussed their tried and tested strategies to better position their purpose-led companies to get the right response from customers.
1. Clarify your company’s core values
From an internal perspective, you need to start by outlining clear core values for your company, according to global brand manager of adventure gear and apparel company Kathmandu, Tim Loftus.
“One of the biggest challenges we found so far is the word sustainability itself – which has a stigma and the fear of costs attached to it,” he said. “But none of that is actually a reality. In fact, sustainability needs to be engrained in your core values.”
At Kathmandu, Loftus said core values include integrity, resourcefulness, environmental action, openness and directness, as well as love of travel and adventure.
“Culturally, you need to be proud of what you’re doing in terms of sustainability to drive your business and celebrate it internally,” he said.
2. Be collaborative in your approach
Loftus also stressed sustainability is a team sport; you cannot be expected to have all the answers for your customers on your own.
“Don’t do it alone, ask for help,” he said. “Customers don’t expect you have all the answers, but they do expect you to be honest and transparent in what you’re doing.”
One example of Kathmandu’s response to solving a widespread consumer concern through collaboration was its approach to downsourcing.
“We have an endless amount of social media commentary on downsourcing, which is a contentious issue in our industry and at the same time critical to our business commercially,” he explained. “What we had to do was drive innovation and sit next to our competitors like the North Face and Patagonia, and work collaboratively together. And one of the great experiences was having a global collaborative approach to such solution-oriented projects.”
3. Don’t be purely motivated by campaigning
But it’s important to remember sustainability should not be exploited as purely a marketing tactic, but embraced because you genuinely feel like you need to play a part in the bigger picture, Serendipity Ice Cream’s CEO, Sarah Mendleson, said.
The carbon neutral specialty brand started 50 years ago, and creates premium local ice-cream from mostly locally sourced ingredients. It started with a commitment to use 100 per cent green energy, which overnight cut the company’s carbon emissions by over 80 per cent.
“Our journey over the next nine years continued with the help of local council, which gave us a lot of advice on issues like resource recovery, reuse and recycling,” she said. “And we track our carbon emissions via a calculator, which I developed specifically for our business use in-house.”
While the brand has incorporated sustainability in its marketing, website and packaging, Mendleson stressed at no point was the company motivated to act action on sustainability because of marketing.
“I would certainly not pounce on taking on any sustainability initiative purely for marketing benefit,” she said. “Nor would I amend making environmental sustainability your single point of difference – unless you’re Tesla or perhaps Greenpeace. You need to consider the triple bottom line – people, the planet and profit.
“But once you do include it in your marketing, you better be committed to doing what you say. If you don’t, you’ll alienate the very people who care about what you’re doing in the first place and it will be difficult to recover.”
4. Celebrate real customer stories
Externally, Loftus said the focus for the 30-year old brand has been to benchmark global best practice, commit to complete transparency and engage customers on the journey with real stories.
“We want to be a more global brand, so we need to position ourselves in such a way that we are achieving global best practice in sustainability,” he said.
The company sought to relay three key brand messages: Sustainability as a team sport, to reframe the conversation, and to engage real people with real stories.
“Keep the message easy and simple,” he said. “For instance, our customers can easily say 17 plastic water bottles turned into this backpack.”
It’s important to engage the customer with the brand and connect them with your core values, Loftus continued. For instance, the brand often celebrates remarkable stories of customer’s charitable adventure missions, and even gives them gear to help them farther their stories.
“We also take our own loyal customers on our photoshoots and let them tell their stories for us,” he added. “Our customers want to be part of the conversation and part of the solution. They know we can’t do it all on our own and they want to be involved.”
5. Avoid scaremongering and embrace transparency
One of the challenges a sustainable brand has in the face of its competition is avoiding the risk of being scaremongering and negative, while trying to relay the right message, highlighted household cleaning and bodycare brand ecostore’s co-founder and CEO, Malcolm Rands.
“At ecostore, one of our challenges was how do we let people know about the nasty chemicals in their household products and that they were being poisoned, without being scaremongering and going negative,” he said. “We wanted to let people know from the outset that we don’t want to poison you, and we’re so into it that we actually reject 50 per cent of green chemicals because we want to look after your health.”
In order to put a positive spin in the message, ecostore decided on a culture of complete transparency when it comes to suppliers and ingredients.
“We’ve outrageously opened up our books – so if you go on our website you can see every single ingredient, right through to the independent third-party scientific proof of how healthy or unhealthy our ingredients are,” he explained. “We’re completely transparent.”
One of the latest things ecostore has done, which Rands claimed was a brave step for the company, is moving away from traditional plastic to be the first company in the world to completely change all its plastics into sugar-based plastics.
“We’re actually carbon positive, so one kilo of our plastics actually captures two kilos of carbon dioxide and keeps it out of the atmosphere – so we’re using plastic to help solve climate change,” he said. “Now this is costing us a fortune, half a million dollars a year, but we’re doing it because we think it is the right thing to do and because the multi-nationals refuse to. And in the end, our customers really respond to it. So it’s working for us, even if at first glance it looks like financial suicide.”