Ten Insights for Sustainable Brands in an Uncertain Economy

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Hilary Bromberg, chief strategist at marketing firm egg, offers some choice advice on how to keep sustainable brands afloat during these tumultuous economic times.

Hilary Bromberg

Posted Jan. 2009

By Sustainable Life Media

After nearly a decade of build-up, sustainability and “green” were
the issues du jour for much of 2007 and 2008 – but with the recent
market crash, the national dialogue has turned more towards keeping a
roof over your head than keeping a green roof over your head. So what’s
a sustainable brand to do? Here are a ten strategies for honing a
compelling green message in this tough economic climate.

1. Take pride in your sustainable brand, and know that there’s a
strong core of people out there who still care about sustainability and
who will continue to care.

Consumers may not use the word "sustainability," but they’ve been
getting on the path for quite some time now — buying organics,
recycling, using CFLs, embracing companies that support fair trade and
social/environmental causes, seeking out local products, seeking less
toxic products for home and body, seeking health and wellness and a
more balanced and simplified lifestyle, supporting positive
environmental actions and social justice whenever possible. This
constellation of behaviors all comprises sustainability: It represents
a psychic evolution that people go through over time, and it’s
difficult to go backwards once you’ve begun to progress down the path.
So while we’ll likely see pullbacks from the double-digit growth we’ve
seen in most sustainability sectors in the past decade (because of a
general economic slowdown), the fundamentals here are still sound.
Sustainability-seeking “conscious consumers” exist along a continuum,
defined by all the various “sustainable” actions people may or may not
take, and comprise as much as 85% of the US population — with around
20% of the population far enough into this mindset that it’s come to be
part of their identities. These people are not just going to evaporate.
A recent poll confirms this: 85% of people still want to purchase
products from socially responsible companies, economics be damned.

2. If you’re a “core” brand with true sustainability cred, you’ll
do just fine, and you’ll probably even outperform the market at large.

If you were just greenwashing, then now would be a good time to stop
— the mass market is more concerned with “value” than with values at a
time like this (no matter what they might claim on a survey), and the
people who were just chasing the green trends will fall away as their
401ks collapse. But if you’re doing some bona fide good in the world, then you’d do well to keep going.
The climate isn’t going to stop changing anytime soon, awareness about
toxicity issues will only become more sophisticated over time (witness
the recent mainstream awareness about BPA and the shift towards glass
baby bottles), and the need for sustainability will become more and
more urgent as a global issue, even as the economy suffers. (And if
Obama’s new green deal falls into place, economic recovery and a
burgeoning sustainability scene could become one and the same.)

3. Be socially responsible. Talk about it. Be more socially responsible than ever. Talk about it even more.

Conscious consumers care much more about a company’s internal socially responsible actions
(how they treat their employees) than about their environmentally
responsible ones. And this sentiment will only grow stronger during a
period when job security is at a 35-year low. Companies that treat
people well will be seen as islands of enlightenment during this era of
massive layoffs and paycuts, and the more that you talk about the real
things you’re doing that are truly humanistic, the more that the
“conscious consumer” will be drawn to your brand. Did you know that
Patagonia lets everyone go surfing when the tide is high? That the
revolutionary Brazilian company Semco lets employees (er, “associates”)
determine their own salaries? That Google offers everyone on their main
campus three organic meals each day? These are the sorts of things that
conscious consumers care about, and that will ultimately help
differentiate your brand. And – oh yes – it’s the right thing to do. So
now is a good time to look deep into your operating principles and find
real — not just gimmicky — ways to make employees feel valued and cared
about.

4. Anticipate growing anti-consumption attitudes, and focus on offering a quality experience.

In times like this, people will have a natural “sour grapes”
attitude towards consumption in general, and will resent the mere
existence of goods that they simply cannot afford, even rejecting the
very idea of “consumption” if they’re already down the path to
sustainability. All of the core tenets of sustainability are consistent
with a less “consumptive” lifestyle and a more high-quality offering,
so if you’re in this space, you’re probably already poised for success
during an economic downturn. Now is the time to ask yourself some
serious questions about your product offerings, your brand, and your
messaging — “quality” is a core conscious consumer value, and will
become even more so as people become (by necessity) increasingly
selective about what they buy. Patagonia has actually elected to halt
growth altogether — they’ve reduced their clothing line by 30%,
proclaiming that people simply do not need that much stuff, and that
their products are made to last. As the recession continues, people
will become less and less willing to buy items that do not feel
lasting, substantial, and soul-nourishing. And they’ll become even more
annoyed at the standard tactics and tone of traditional “push”
marketing.

5. That said, affordable luxuries and “guilty” escapist pleasures
will thrive in this environment, as they did during the Great
Depression and every other economic downturn.

If you can tap into these trends, you’ll capture the hearts and
minds of people who are living in a state of heightened fear and
desperation. The twist: you’re actually giving people something that
has a positive impact on their life and the planet (relatively
speaking, of course). Whether it’s organic “nutriceutical” chocolate
that promises “bliss” on the packaging, or a super-soft organic cotton
t-shirt that fits gorgeously and feels like spun clouds, if you offer
people small and affordable thrills, they’ll be captivated by whatever
you have to offer, and they’ll actually feel good about themselves
after the purchase. And if you can cue certain qualities like
“handmade,” “nourishing,” “thriving,” or “spiritually uplifting,” your
offerings will feel that much more luxurious, because these are the new
values that define “luxury” for the conscious consumer who has moved
beyond the traditional Western model of luxury (that, frighteningly,
China and India are only now beginning to discover.)

6. You’ve probably got less money to spend on marketing these days, but social networks are a powerful way to spread the word.

Pay attention to digital outreach, and two-way communications within
the digital space. People who have incorporated sustainability into
their identities feel great about touting products in this space — it’s
still so difficult to find great “responsible” products and services
out there that conscious consumers tend to do a lot of talking within
their networks about what they’ve found. And a great find reflects well
on a person’s sensibilities and, crucially, their values — unlike
purchases in the vast unsustainable space, which merely identify a
person as a consumer. So master the digital space, — start twittering, develop a facebook fan base, keep a transparent two-way conversation
going with your core consumers (and cultivate evangelists whenever
possible), make your own website compellingly interactive, and you’ll
find that your marketing dollars go a lot further.

7. Don’t condescend to people with heavy-handed “value” messaging.

As a brand in the sustainability space, you’re focused on a triple
bottom line, and your core consumers care about this. By suddenly
focusing on cost, you risk seeming manipulative and off-brand. People
are perfectly capable of figuring out whether they can afford you or
not. “Green” products have had enough trouble gaining traction during
the past decade because of premium pricing (among other reasons), and
now would not be a great time to draw attention to the not-so-small
matter that products and services in this space tend to cost a little
bit more. Conscious consumers aren’t buying your product because you’re
the cheapest – this was never your value proposition, and never should
be. You know about true cost economics, and so do your core consumers.
And even the “mid-range” consumers know that “you have to pay a little
more” for things that are safer or higher-quality. Don’t compromise
your values at a time like this. (But if you’re way out in eco-luxury
land, you might have more of an uphill battle these days. Take solace
in the fact that even during the Great Depression, low-key luxury still
flourished and 75% of people were employed. And that “green” came to be
associated with quality and innovation before the 2008 market crash, so
its cachet is actually based on something real.)

8. Given that people will, realistically, have trouble affording you, be generous. Very generous.

If you do this with free stuff and loyalty programs, rather than
price reductions, people will love you all the more. Price reductions
cheapen your brand; thoughtfully architected giveaways feel like gifts
and create deep feelings of attachment. During the Great Depression,
movie theaters used to give away sets of silverware — piece by piece,
week by week — and played to full houses even in the worst of times.
Sampling is one of the most powerful known tactics for food products —
24% of people, when given an in-store sample of a product, will buy it
instead of the product they intended to buy. So give things away. Give
freely and cleverly, and people will flock to your brand, especially in
times like these, when a generous sample will take on heightened
significance to a heart more accustomed to privations.

9. Understand the deep roots of the sustainability movement. This
will give you the deepest clues about what to do, how to express it,
and what conscious consumers really want.

To understand a movement, we must look to the beliefs of its
innovators and early adopters — this it where it all begins.
Sustainability is not a fad or a trend. It’s a seismic cultural shift,
and it’s here to stay. Most of our evolutionary history has been spent
living sustainably. To the extreme conscious consumer (who would
probably balk at the word “consumer”), our current unsustainable mess
of a burning planet is seen as a big socio-cultural mistake facilitated
by short-sighted application of technological innovation and the amoral
reach of unchecked capitalism. Mental illness is, quite understandably,
at an all-time high (50% of Americans suffer from clinical levels of
stress, anxiety, depression, or personality disorders.) People feel
less and less in control of their lives nowadays, and want to gain a
sense of peace and purity and balance and real interpersonal connection
and soulful depth in their day-to-day existence. And so, things are
finally changing. We’re just beginning to come out of a dark age now,
and there’s no turning back. Record numbers of MBA students want to incorporate sustainability into their careers; 80% of Fortune 500 companies have CSR reports.
Yes, nobody is really there yet – watching corporations take steps
towards sustainability is like watching an infant learn to crawl. But
we’ll get there. As innovators, we can see that the rest of the world
has no choice. They’ll have to catch up, or there will be no more world
to live in. As we ease out of decadent late capitalism and into a more
sustainable way of life, transparency, authenticity, balance,
egalitarianism and distributed models will become the norm – it’s just
a matter of time.

10. Think hard about what you’re trying to sell. Question it from
every angle, and ask yourself it it’s truly necessary. Change is afoot.

The current economic climate is a direct result of our previous
excesses, so correction can actually be a good thing. Peer-to-peer
networks are developing powerful alternatives to gratuitous consumption
— fashionistas exchange unwanted clothing at “swishing” parties;
couchsurfing.com makes hotels obsolete; freecycling, freeganism, and
all manner of “borrowing” networks are emerging day by day. These
trends challenge conventional purchasing models at every step. So ask
yourself what you truly want to give people, whether they truly need
it, and — crucially — if they might just find another way to get it.
Challenge your own sustainability practices at every point, and we
might just make it through alive.

_______________________

Hilary Bromberg is chief strategist at egg, a brand development firm in Seattle, Washington.

This column has been adapted from a whitepaper published by egg. Download it here (PDF).

No Responses to “Ten Insights for Sustainable Brands in an Uncertain Economy”

  1. More and more people/companies need to jump on the sustainability wagon to make a difference. Check out this read too: http://www.acreageanywhere.com/specialty_articles/sustainable_development_still_thriving.html

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