Are your brand's sustainability efforts falling short with consumers?

Half of the top 100 brands in the world are seen as “lacking” in sustainability credentials by consumers.
26 March 2024
Elizabeth Katsadouros

Commercial Partner, Sustainable Transformation Practice, North America

Jordan Herrington

Commercial Partner, Sustainable Transformation Practice, North America

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Sustainability is a critical issue for many of today’s brands. And for good reason. According to Kantar’s BrandZ 2023 global equity study of 20,000 brands across 50 markets, consumer endorsements of sustainability have risen 84% over the last 10 years. The same study also identified sustainability as the most important driver of corporate reputation, contributing 45% to people’s positive perceptions of a company.

Yet despite brands’ best efforts to prioritize sustainability and help shape a better future, their sustainability initiatives may not be resonating as well as they could with consumers; according to Kantar BrandZ half of the top 100 brands in the world were deemed “lacking” in sustainability credentials by consumers, with only 2% viewed as “leading” in sustainability.

Often the problem of ineffective sustainability initiatives starts at the organizational level, where a host of issues can get in the company’s way, including fragmented responsibilities, competing priorities and unclear ESG strategies.  This disorganization often leads to a weakened sustainability output by brands, in terms of both messaging and initiatives, and contributes to the phenomenon of consumers either missing a brand’s sustainability efforts altogether or perceiving them as lacking credibility. 

There is, however, still a myriad of ways to take back control and drive impactful sustainability initiatives. Brand marketers can start the journey by organizing their efforts around three key fundamentals.

Identify where to play

Choosing the right sustainability topic is vital, as sustainability topics prioritized by your organization, and ultimately your brand, become the primary vehicles of potential differentiation and leadership that will influence consumers.  Moreover, brands that tell a sustainability narrative that feels misaligned with the broader organization and with consumer perceptions of the brand itself are at increased risk of perceived greenwashing or social washing.   

Relevancy between brand and issue is especially important when determining where to focus sustainability efforts, as it is an essential ingredient in building credibility with consumers. The relevancy of specific sustainability topics depends on the category in which a brand plays, as consumers traditionally expect brands to help them solve sustainability issues they are contributing to.  

One simple way to begin the process of identifying a relevant sustainability topic is to gain clarity on those topics that serve as the north star for your organization and underpin its broader ESG strategy. For instance, your company may have an ESG strategy that focuses on climate change or social justice.  From there, brand marketers should look to identify specific sustainability issues that sit underneath their organization’s topics and align with their brand (e.g. mission, values, etc.).  That means considering not only topics that matter to consumers, but issues that your brand/industry can speak to or solve for.  For instance, a health and hygiene brand might focus on water reduction (climate change) and equitable health services (social justice).  

An additional key consideration is determining whether to focus on a sustainability issue that is either a shield or sword issue, as we call them at Kantar. Shields are sustainability issues that have high perceived relevance to a specific industry. They are seen as table stakes by consumers, so a lack of brand presence in these areas may immediately diminish credibility. Swords are sustainability issues that have both high category relevance and high consumer concern. These issues may be harder to tackle given that they play leading roles in the culture of the market, but they present the biggest opportunity for transformative growth.  

Create brand messaging that drives behavior

According to Kantar’s 2023 Sustainable Sector Index, an average of 81% of consumers across sectors say they want to live a sustainable lifestyle, yet only 29% report they are actively changing their behavior.  A major driver of this significant gap between what consumers say and what they actually do is lack of clear information.  

Brands can help close this gap by creating clear messaging that drives adoption of sustainability initiatives. One area to start is identifying the factors that drive consumer engagement or purchase intent in your space (what we call fuels) as well as the challenges keeping consumers from living a more sustainable lifestyle (frictions). From there, explore consumers’ unarticulated needs and values within the identified fuels and frictions, which will enable you to develop messaging that powers realistic behavior change, helps your brand stand out and drives more engaging ads. 

Importantly, Kantar research shows that when consumers mention “lack of clear information” as a friction, what they really mean is that they have a multitude of unmet needs, including lacking information on what is/is not sustainable, the overall impact of the brand on sustainability (positive or not), how it benefits them, how to use it, and on and on.  Brand messaging can help answer these questions. But it requires marketers to leverage deep human understanding of specific sustainability fuels and frictions to identify innovations, interventions and activations that will make it easier and more intuitive for consumers to invest in your brand.  

Own the narrative

Owning a narrative means holding attention, not just capturing it, and taking consumers on a journey with the brand that is in alignment with its sustainability ambitions. 

Brands can achieve this aspiration by engaging consumers in human-centric ways and communicating meaningful information, including articulating where sustainability factors complement function and offer value-added benefits designed for the consumer in mind. 

It is also important that your sustainability narrative speaks to culture, not category. Category is a significant factor in deciding where to play but is less relevant in deciding what to say and how to say it. The language of culture trumps the conventions of your category because it is more interesting, vibrant and resonant with consumers. Culture drives human behavior and includes societal norms, language, symbols and artifacts, which is exactly why it is such a powerful catalyst in storytelling. 

Lastly, to be effective your sustainability narrative must also be part of relevant conversations with people. This does not mean just taking part in conversations on social media and talking at people, but rather leading the conversations and talking to people in ways that are:  

  • authentic – open, honest and generous, sharing who the brand truly is  
  • rooted – offering a clear sense of place and belonging, a deep link to the cultures in which the brand operates 
  • potent – more useful and impactful to individuals and their lives as they fully understand how to help 
  • simple – easier to deal with and more intuitive, valuing people’s time and making life simpler and easier

As indicated, these recommendations are just the starting point for making sustainability resonate with consumers. Ultimately, brands with sustainability ambitions need to make them real, that is, take sustainability plans from concept to tangible actions that can be seen and felt by consumers. Fortunately, there are many avenues to bringing sustainability to life, including infusing sustainability into how the brand organization operates, the initiatives it supports, the ways it packages its products, the language it uses, and the lifestyle it promotes.  In every effort, it is essential that sustainability-minded brands build their social utility, and in turn differentiate themselves, by meeting emerging consumer aspirations and driving actual change. 

And remember—when it comes to sustainability, consumers are looking for brands that own acts of leadership, not acts of compliance.

Be the leader.

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