Voicing your ethical stance

A green glow underneath the golden arches logo outside McDonald’s European restaurants is supposed to promote that the fast-food chain is an eco-friendly company. But is this enough to convince consumers that it is a sustainable brand?

“While the chain has been doing a hell of a lot behind the scenes, it hasn’t gained enough credit for what it is doing in the consumer landscape,” warns Marie Ridgley, managing director of agency Added Value UK.

With Fairtrade Fortnight upon us, the focus on socially and environmentally sustainable business means any claims that brands make are under the spotlight more than ever. But, Ridgley argues, sustainability communications and marketing are arts that many major brands like McDonald’s are failing to get right – even if they are working hard to implement sustainability practices.

When a McDonald’s customer orders cheeseburger and fries, it isn’t obvious what changes the fast-food chain are making to become more sustainable. The danger of this is accusations of corporate greenwashing, even when they are unwarranted.

This is not just an issue for McDonald’s. The sustainability efforts being made by many businesses are not being recognised by consumers, according to recent research by green brand agency Change. Microsoft and Nike might be making positive environmental changes but consumers don’t appear to know about it.

Brands may be having problems getting their messages across but they haven’t given up the idea of finding a solution. Sustainability communications agencies are one of the most requested external services by companies, according to the CSR Professional Services Directory.

After two years of economic difficulties, businesses see sustainability as an important part of building a good corporate reputation. At a time when profits are often seen by consumers as a negative, sustainability provides brands with a good news story to communicate to consumers.

In order to better understand what sustainability issues are making an impact, agency Freud Communications has been tracking media coverage of sustainability using its MediaView research programme.

Freud board director Arlo Brady has identified five trends (see below) which he argues need to be taken seriously by UK businesses. These are the topics that will not only resonate with consumers but also shareholders and other stake­holders looking at the future of the business.

“We never traditionally talked about what we were doing [for sustainability] because it was not something we thought consumers were interested in. But over the years we have found that it is something the media have been talking about”

Liz Lowe, Coca-Cola

“The most important thing is to look at how your business maps against these five areas and consider what substantive changes you can make in those spaces,” says Brady.

Hot sustainability issues identified by the press need to be monitored by businesses because keeping on the right side of the media is one of the key ways to build a solid business reputation, adds Brady. “For most of our clients, the media are the most influential stakeholders; their perspective can often be used as a barometer to gauge overall stakeholder interest.”

By addressing the top media issues such as climate change, brands can put themselves in front of their competitors, he adds. “If you go out and talk to consumers about climate change, that will doubtless have huge reputational implications, especially if your competitors haven’t done anything about it. There are also huge implications for the business other than sustainability – it impacts on trust, for example.”

Increasing media coverage of sustainability has helped Coca-Cola to understand that its work behind the scenes on sustainability is something consumers want to know about, says the brand’s citizenship manager, Liz Lowe.

She recalls: “We never traditionally talked about what we were doing because it was not something we thought consumers were interested in. But over the years we’ve seen that it is something the mainstream media have been talking about.”

Coke works on a number of sustainability projects behind the scenes and has created what it calls a “transparent” platform for people to access information. Its recently launched CSR website – Live Positively – carries the company’s sustainability report and provides indepth information about issues such as water, packaging and climate change. The language used throughout the site has been deliberately chosen to make the topic as accessible and plain-speaking as possible to a wide audience.

Car company Renault’s aspirational marketing wins positive comments from WWF’s Lovegrove. He says: “We’re seeing a lot of good communications on the climate front. Renault has articulated a bold aspiration to ‘Drive the Change’. It is moving forward into a new kind of business that is going to promote greener vehicles. It explains the issues around mobility so eloquently.”

Knowing when to start talking about sustainability to customers requires companies to understand what stage their consumers are at too. Sainsbury’s talks to its customers and monitors their shopping behaviour via its loyalty card scheme Nectar to help it understand what parts of its sustainability work should be customer facing, says Ben Eavis, Sainsbury’s corporate responsibility and ethical trade manager.

“Take a water footprint – it’s important for some stakeholders but most customers wouldn’t understand it. It might become a customer issue in four or five years’ time, but at the moment customers aren’t ready for it,” he reports.

There are different levels of in-store communication to appeal to a broad audience, he argues. Sainsbury’s is currently promoting that it is the world’s largest Fairtrade retailer and is using Fairtrade Fortnight to “shout loudly” about this claim.

This type of communication resonates with a wide audience, he argues, but other messages the retailer gives out are not necessarily for the masses. CSR content on the web and fishing signage in-store are aimed at the more informed customer, Eavis explains, adding: “People might not necessarily understand everything that Fairtrade represents, but a mass audience see it as a shorthand for good practice.”

Innovative in-store communications is something that German consumer goods company Henkel is looking at this year. It is introducing mobile internet technology to inform shoppers in the supermarket about how to use laundry and home care products in a more environmentally friendly way.

Dual messaging showing how to reduce CO2 emissions and save money will be available to customers who hold their mobile phones up to Quick Response (QR) codes printed on product packaging.

This type of technology will help the brand to interact with customers about sustainability at the point of purchase, says Uwe Bergmann, head of corporate sustainability management at Henkel.

“The mobile internet is widely available and the number of users is increasing – with young consumers particularly keen,” says Bergmann. “By providing QR codes on product packs, Henkel is able to meet a growing demand for the immediate availability of query-specific information.”

Making information available in an open and transparent way is something that male grooming brand Bulldog advocates. It lets customers know what it is doing and the vision of where it would like to be.

But what frustrates founder of the company Simon Duffy is the lack of sincerity in many sustainability communications. “It’s frustrating that many companies have sustainability as an add-on and talk about ‘naturalness’. You have to ask if that’s truly how they organise their business or is it part of a marketing strategy,” he argues.

“It’s frustrating that many companies have sustainability as an add-on and talk about ’naturalness’. You have to ask if that’s truly how they organise their business”

Simon Duffy, Bulldog

Getting the balance right between stating your sustainability aims and talking about issues before real issues have been addressed behind the scenes is a delicate act. Added Value’s Ridgely says: “We’ve been in situations before where we hear of a company’s intent to be more sustainable. Sometimes you’re doing an education job on what sustainability really is.”

Working behind the scenes to effect real change in your business is vital to build up a good reputation, argues Freud’s Brady. Following this with a multi-layered marketing and communications strategy that appeals to a variety of stakeholders will cement your business position as a genuine leader, he adds.

“You have to get your sustainability message through to key opinion formers. If you manage to persuade those people, then they’ll go out to consumers and do the hard work for you.”

Fairtrade Fortnight will be over for another year in a matter of days, but Brady says that sustainability communication will get more important throughout 2010, not less. If brands don’t tackle the issue now, they will be left behind.

He warns: “Sustainability as a concept is increasingly associated in consumers’ minds with innovation. If you allow your competitors to take the innovation crown, it’s a risky place to be in business terms.”

Strong appeal: Sainsbury’s is the world’s largest free trade retailer

Sustainability in the media

How does the media cover sustainability issues? Freud’s board director Arlo Brady assesses 12 months of MediaView tracking and predicts the trends marketers must know in 2010

A climate of change

In 2009, climate change and carbon became media “mega trends” with coverage in the UK growing year on year. These topics dwarfed the coverage given to other sustainability themes, such as healthy eating, water and waste.

Renewable energy also benefited from this trend, albeit from a much smaller base level of coverage. The media attention given to December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen played an undeniable role in driving coverage. It is unlikely climate change will lose its pre-eminent media profile in 2010.

A healthy trend?

Last year, the issues of healthy eating and nutrition continued their slow decline in UK media prominence for a third successive year. This can be attributed to a variety of factors: first, the stranglehold exerted by climate change as an issue has led to a degree of myopia among media, with over 25% of all environmental, social and economic sustainability coverage being devoted to this theme.

Second, it seems we may be witnessing a gradual cooling of the “Jamie Oliver effect”, so-named after the celebrity chef’s crusade to get British children eating better. Media attention around this issue grew exponen­tially in 2007 because of the campaign. However, media coverage in 2010 so far is seeing healthy eating begin to grow in profile again – witness the recent report questioning the nutritional value of school packed lunches, for example. This issue is expected to reverse its decline in the media in 2010.

Environmental growth?

A number of environmental sustainability issues related to climate change have risen in prominence. Water scarcity, renewable energy, sustainable fish and rainforest loss all continue to climb the media coverage rankings.

Some corporate sustainability activities are succeeding in generating a gradual groundswell of support that should see these themes continue to climb the media agenda in 2010. These include Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, Sky’s Rainforest Rescue initiative and Mars’ Rainforest Alliance certification. High-profile NGO campaigns such as The Prince’s Rainforest Project, and issues-led films like The End of the Line will also help to keep the issues high on the agenda.

Social sustainability decline

In contrast with environmental sustainability issues, media coverage of social themes such as human rights and slave labour continued to decline in 2009. Here, the credit crunch is likely to have made an impact. Whereas many environmental sustainability campaigns involve corporations saving money upfront, social programmes typically require significant outlay or investment prior to any mid-term marketing benefit.

As the global economy gradually emerges from stagnation and companies embrace the “trilemma” of environmental, economic and social sustainability, these issues may achieve greater prominence this year.

Food for thought?

Coverage of organic farming and food waste issues were influenced by the global recession in 2009. Tightening budgets have forced all but the most committed shoppers to make buying decisions based on their wallets.

Food waste issues received attention as the media focused on helping consumers save money. Meanwhile, organic food, with the perceived extra costs associated with it, decreased in coverage.

Coverage of food waste is likely to continue to grow in 2010 as austerity becomes embedded in consumer thinking.

With hopes of an economic thaw this year, a potential Conservative government and high-profile commentators like the Prince of Wales continuing their attack on intensive food production, organic farming may regain some media prominence this year.

MediaView is designed to evaluate media coverage on such issues by looking at 20 key environmental, social and economic sustainability issues, which include greenwash and fish sustainability.

What are the top sustainability trends for consumers in 2010?

Affordable green

Affordable green products, from shopping bags to green electricity, will become even more prevalent in the next year. There are already some green products that actually are cheaper than their alternatives, including the latest-model cars, washing machines, cleaning products and some stores’ own-branded paper products. Mintel forecasts 19% growth for green products by 2013.

Informed shoppers

More consumers will investigate what brands are doing. Thanks to the internet

and the power of online search, it has never been easier for consumers to assess what their favourite brands are doing for the environment and charities, so people will be shopping wisely.

Green celebs

Green is the new status symbol. Green products and lifestyles are definitely no longer for treehuggers. Noir has launched luxury eco-fashion products, including organically certified African cotton products. Linda Loudermilk’s Couture line includes glamorous and sophisticated pieces made from bamboo and soya. This new luxury eco-fashion has become more widely available and celebrities are quick to jump on the environmental bandwagon. Think about Harry Potter actress Emma Watson’s fashion line with Fairtrade and organic label People Tree.

Green verification

Consumers don’t think companies are genuine when they talk about how they help the environment and society, according to the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) service, which researches sustainable goods. Partnerships are being formed to help brands verify their claims, such as the one between Coca-Cola and the WWF.

Thoughtful technology

We are moving away from crazy gadgets. Large corporations are developing greener products, including Apple’s 17-inch MacBook Pro, which is made of recyclable aluminium with 34% less packaging than the previous model. Going a step further, Motorola has made a phone entirely from recycled plastic bottles, with recycled packaging and prepaid envelopes to send phones back to Motorola for reuse. The idea of reusing items will grow increasingly important in future.

Source: Diana Verde Nieto, founder of sustainability and communications at consultancy Clownfish

Six key principles for successful sustainability brand communications

1 You need to understand what is at the core of your brand. At the heart of any brand communications on sustainability is careful positioning. This helps you to establish your right to credibility when appearing in the sustainability space.

2 Brands should be looking outwards and keeping track of consumer attitudes to sustainability. As a brand, you want to lead the way but not be so far ahead of your consumers that they think you’re irrelevant.

3 Look at what is relevant for your product categories. Cadbury making its Dairy Milk product Fairtrade makes sense because it has been trading with Ghana for more than 100 years. Cocoa is very relevant for that category, rather than picking a cause around, for example, planting trees.

Other brands have set a precedent in terms of Fairtrade certification in this area, such as Divine chocolate but that’s a very niche brand, so Cadbury is mainstreaming those ideas.

4 Brands should not try to talk about what they are doing in a “pat yourself on the back” kind of way. Be seen leading a change in the way that corporates behave and engage people in communication. It is important to have a dialogue rather than just telling consumers the way it is going to be.

5 Consumers will not buy products simply because they are sustainable. You can do sustainability for sustainability’s sake – but don’t expect customers to pay for this. You have got to think about the benefit of the category to them.

6 Never forget: it is better not to claim sustainability publicly until you have everything sorted behind the scenes.

Source: Marie Ridgley, managing director of Added Value and head of the Branding for Good team.


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