Posts Tagged ‘greenwashing’
A business that strives to be sustainable but falls far short on its sustainability promises is committing “a greater sin” than a business that ignores sustainability but keeps its promises. That’s one of the findings of the new Sustainability + Branding Survey of sustainability advocates in business.
My partners and I in the Sustainable Branding Collaborative have released a summary report of the survey, which we conducted in late 2010. I encourage you to download a copy and see what your peers have to say.
When asked which is the “greater sin,” 78 percent of respondents said it’s worse for a business to make an effort to become more sustainable but allow its publicized promises on sustainability to far exceed its actual practices. Only 22 percent said it’s a greater sin for a company to make no claim or effort to become sustainable but otherwise deliver on all of its promises.
What’s clear from the survey is business executives committed to sustainability loathe greenwashing and value integrity. The findings validate the importance our group’s branding approach places on ensuring the sustainability practices of your employees and organization deliver what your brand promises.
Branding advice from sustainability proponents
The survey respondents’ top pieces of advice for companies branding more sustainable products and services include:
- Be honest, be authentic, “walk your talk”
- Build a solid sustainability foundation using methods such as The Natural Step Framework, whole systems thinking and triple-bottom-line accounting
- Measure, verify and certify sustainability claims, preferably using a third party
- Look at branding as a critical foundation for business success, not as a luxury
Does sustainability change branding?
Among other findings, respondents were almost evenly split on the question of whether the practice of branding should be different for an organization that is striving to become sustainable: 53 percent said no, 47 percent said yes.
Branding is branding, say the respondents who believe the practice of branding should be the same — regardless of whether a business is on the sustainability path. Those who believe the practice should be different say sustainable brands need to place a greater emphasis on authenticity, honesty and delivering on the brand promise than traditional brands do. They also believe branding must be approached as part of a comprehensive, company-wide effort to be sustainable.
No matter how you go about branding your business or product, the values of honesty, transparency and keeping your promises are paramount. Whether you believe these values can be instilled through traditional branding methods or require new approaches, the sustainability proponents in this survey strongly advise you to do what you say.
About the survey
The Sustainable Branding Collaborative conducted the Sustainability + Branding Survey November 10-17, 2010. The survey gathered online responses from 291 innovators and early adopters in the sustainable business movement.
Apologies to the duck, but if it looks like an oil company, drills like an oil company, and speaks like an oil company, then it’s probably an oil company. And no amount of green costuming can disguise its true brown nature, especially when the promise of its “product” is now a potential ecological and economic disaster.
In the past decade, BP has positioned itself as a progressive global corporation — beyond petroleum, it would have us believe. In reality, it’s a gigantic oil company that, despite its energy diversifications, is determined to keep feeding our insatiable carbon appetite and making billions for it and its shareholders along the way.
If only BP would be so honest. Instead it continues to lead with a brand — symbolized by a logo inspired by the Greek god of the sun and bathed in pastoral green — that implies its core value is sustaining life for the planet and all its inhabitants.
Branding consultant Lisa Merriam tells it like is:
“The much-admired green sun BP brand died this week. This is a brand that never left the marketing department. No matter what they said the company stood for, they never lived it. Despite all those smug ads about wind farms and being ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ this shows they are just like any other oil company — their green brand is as dead as all of the wildlife washing up on Louisiana shores.”
While I side with Merriam on this one, the reality is BP’s green reputation hasn’t been warranted for some time, if ever. In April 2008, Sustainable Industries magazine, citing an anonymous source, reported:
(A) top-down decision has been made to pull away from touting any “green” initiatives in the media, and in fact major “green” advertising buys have been canceled. Recent press releases focus not on alternative energy successes as they did in (former CEO Lord) Browne’s time, but on BP’s ability to keep pumping oil, maintain its oil reserves and safely conduct deep-water oil drilling.
A look at the advertising BP features on its website seems to bear this out. Beyond petroleum isn’t an environmental message; it’s an energy security message, as copy in this current BP ad illustrates:
To enhance America’s energy and economic security, we must secure more of the energy we consume. That means expanding the use of wind, solar and biofuels, as well as opening new offshore areas to oil and gas production.
BP doesn’t tout alternative energy sources to help reduce global warming — an environmental message. In fact, it clearly is trying to sway public opinion in favor of allowing more offshore drilling — a decidedly non-green initiative.
While BP isn’t hiding its desire to extract and sell lots more oil, it wants to have its cake and eat it, too: lead with energy security and have us believe it also cares about the environment. Consider this BP advertising headline, “Hydrocarbons and low carbons living in harmony.” Right. And Monsanto has some genetically modified seeds to sell you organic farmers.
BP’s website has the obligatory environmental and society sections, giving the impression of their planetary concern. But look closely at BP’s statement on sustainability:
At BP we define sustainability as the capacity to endure as a group, by:
- Renewing assets
- Creating and delivering better products and services that meet the evolving needs of society
- Attracting successive generations of employees
- Contributing to a sustainable environment
- Retaining the trust and support of our customers, shareholders and the communities in which we operate.
Hardly the rhetoric of a company committed to advancing social and environmental health through its company operations. What it tells me is BP cares most about staying in business — “to endure as a group.” The closest it comes to an environmental promise — “contributing to a sustainable environment” — is so vague as to be laughable.
BP’s two-faced approach should not be dismissed as just another instance of greenwashing. It feels more insidious, a cleverly disguised deceit on a global scale. Its incessant search for oil — even in 5,000-foot waters in the Gulf of Mexico — puts BP anywhere but “beyond petroleum.” In the name of “energy security,” BP is willing to risk the kind of ecological calamity now threatening the Gulf region. That is not a risk a sustainable company takes.
The day BP stops drilling is the day I’ll start listening. Until then, let’s make no mistake about the kind of company BP is.
“Promises are like babies,” an unknown author once said. “Easy to make, hard to deliver.”
Sounds like a good reason to never make a promise. Or better yet, good reason to think long and hard before making one.
Countless branding books and consultants describe a brand as a promise. That’s an inside-out view. If I’m on the outside looking at your business, I don’t care whether you make a promise. I care whether you keep it. My guess is millions of Toyota owners feel similarly today about that company’s promise of quality.
Promises have no value until or unless they’re consistently fulfilled. That gets lost among many who make their living in branding, communications and design. I used to be among them. Branding meant communicating a promise and persuading others to pay attention. If I did that well, I was doing my job.
My certainty about all of this gave way as I delved deeper into sustainability and carved out a sustainable branding practice. Everywhere it seemed, marketers were jumping onto the green marketing bandwagon. Meanwhile, consumer complaints of “greenwashing” kept growing as marketers used one hand to paint their companies or products green and the other to cover their eyes to the brown.
Words and deeds
Sustainable branding is not simply marketing communications by another name. It’s aligning what you stand for as a business with what people experience from you. Greenwashing does the opposite: It misaligns words and deeds.
Companies have been saying one thing and doing another forever. What’s changed is the technology and desire to call them out. Social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook and user-generated sites such as Yelp will expose hypocritical businesses in a heartbeat. And nowhere is the B.S. radar on higher alert than when a company speaks of social or environmental responsibility. People may overlook the advertisement that overstates a product’s benefits. But many can’t wait to bust the company that promises — and fails — to do good.
Carefully researched, considered and cultivated, a brand moves a business toward competitive distinction and customer relevance. Unfortunately, most businesses leave brand management to marketing communications. They equate branding with names, logos, taglines, messages, advertising campaigns and a consistent “look & feel.”
Where the buck stops
What our businesses say and how we look matters when separating ourselves as a brand. But not nearly as much as what we do as a business.
Want your brand to stand out from the crowd? Then let your actions do more of the talking. Nothing communicates as convincingly as a company whose employees, culture and operations consistently deliver a distinct, relevant product, service or experience.
This doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a CEO and senior managers who ensure their company walks it talk. Unless your marketing department runs the company, the branding buck must stop with the people who have ultimate authority to motivate, train or cajole everyone to deliver on the company’s core promise.
Stepping onto the path of sustainability makes this more imperative than ever.
When you pledge to build a more sustainable company, it’s like handing a magnifying glass to your customers, employees and other stakeholders and inviting them to inspect your every move. Witness the emergence of greenwashing watchdogs.
Living the brand
The prospect of greater scrutiny frightens some executives. Others say bring it on. They know integrity and accountability have always been hallmarks of great companies. And they don’t fear the added weight of social and environmental responsibility that a commitment to sustainable business practices demand. They’re simply trying to do the right thing.
But even their firms may need help living their brands. That’s why I’ve formed a team of experts in organizational development, sustainability, research, design and storytelling.
I look forward to sharing more about our collaboration soon. But you can be sure we’re clear on one thing: Making a promise is the easy part of branding. It’s the delivery we need to worry about.
I’m concerned, however, that greenwashing may be distracting marketing executives and educators from an even more distressing matter: The vast number of companies, large and small, that even today don’t give lip service to green or sustainable products or practices. They don’t pretend to be sustainable, don’t promise to become sustainable, don’t understand what it means to be sustainable and, frankly, don’t appear to care.
The marketing and advertising of these companies remain what they’ve always been: attempts to promote and sell products and services, without a hint of green gloss. They stress the usual customer benefits: greater value, quality, innovation, convenience, luxury, responsiveness, ROI and the like. But they make no claims to be more earth-friendly, socially responsible or otherwise green or sustainable. These businesses continue to do what they’ve always done, with no obvious regard or accountability for the environmental or social impact of their actions now or across future generations, except perhaps as required by law, rule or regulation.
I don’t know what percentage of businesses are making concerted efforts to become far more sustainable. I’d wager it’s a small minority. One reason the media features companies that embrace sustainability is they are the exceptions. If every company was going green, there would be no story. And one reason businesses tout the “greenness” of their products or practices (sometimes resorting to greenwashing) is they see a competitive or “first mover” advantage. Again, if all companies produced sustainable goods or services, that advantage disappears.
The point is too few businesses are serious about sustainability today. And that should have brand managers, PR counselors, ad execs, social media mavens and all other marketers up in arms.
I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of greenwashing — no company should be allowed an advantage through false or deceptive marketing. But who should worry us more:
- The few unethical companies (and their marketers) trying to pull the green wool over our eyes? Or…
- The many businesses making truthful, “non-green” claims that contribute to excessive or inequitable consumption and their inevitable byproducts: natural resource depletion, ecological damage, climate change, poverty?
Marketers committed to sustainability have a perfect opportunity in this worsening recession to drive home a critical point among their not-so-green peers: It’s time to examine the very role of marketers in fueling unsustainable economies and ways of living. Or stated more positively, how marketers can get on the right side of sustainability.
Ridding the world of greenwashing would be welcomed progress. Harnessing the creative and persuasive talents of every marketer on behalf of a sustainable world would be nothing short of awesome.
Journalist Lucas Conley wrote his book, “OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder,” just before 2008′s financial and economic meltdowns. You would expect branding excess in an economic bubble. But what about in a near depression? If anything, Conley told me in an email exchange last month, the condition he calls OBD is likely to get worse.
“As for OBD in the current economy, I can condense my general observations down to a couple points: consumers are buying less and thinking more. The result of both is that brands are trying harder (either via marketing, discounts, redesigned packaging, etc.) to capture our attention, often driving greater desperation and obsessive branding. Why? When consumers buy less (cutting back on staples and skipping status buys) it means brands have to fight even more for a smaller piece of the pie. When consumers think more (Do I really need this salon shampoo? Isn’t the generic ibuprofen more or less the same as the pricier brand?), they tend to dispel brand myths and discover deals. And any time consumers do more thinking, brands have to fight harder to shortcut their logic with emotional appeals (faster and deeper than logic) or overwhelm them with more marketing, new packaging, etc.”
If Conley proves to be right, and I think he will, the extreme efforts of brands to occupy every nook and cranny of our lives will grow even more frantic and insidious in this rotten economy. And we’re not only talking about consumer products companies. Product and service companies of all stripes are running scared. They could resort to most anything to get customer attention.
Not that any of us would be so guilty, right? Conley says the marketers he interviewed for his book agreed obsessive branding was a widespread problem–it just didn’t apply to them. In other words, they know OBD when they see it; they just don’t see it in themselves.
How about those of us trying to operate our businesses and live our lives more sustainably? Are we better equipped to draw the line when it comes to marketing approaches that offer only the illusion of something innovative, better, unique? Or that deceive customers into believing we offer something they truly need, not just desire?
In this economy, devoted “greenies” in business are not exempt from diminishing prospects. Companies that in good times preach transparency and authenticity in their business practices may be challenged to maintain that commitment as sales rapidly disappear. Numerous incidences of greenwashing in recent years indicate even so-called advocates for sustainability are not above sleight-of-hand branding tactics.
Obsessive branding, Conley argues, distracts companies from what they ought to be doing–innovating. “Real change results from innovation that advances knowledge and improves quality of lives,” he writes. “Branding offers the satisfaction of a sense of change without the hard work.”
There are no shortcuts in the honest pursuit of sustainability. But businesses trying to be more sustainable will also become more innovative. And that will be their ultimate competitive edge.
Want to stand out in this dismal marketplace? Stick to the principles of sustainability. Lead with innovation. And when it comes to your brand, seek the middle ground between neglect and obsession.
P.S. A special note of thanks to McClenahan Bruer Communications, my previous agency, for hosting and introducing me to Lucas Conley last fall.