If sustainability and ESG branding aren’t already on your radar, there’s a risk you’ve been living in a very dark and deep hole for the last ten years.
The business case for corporate sustainability has never been greater, as businesses feel the impact of climate change on their operations and the growing demand not only from investors and regulators, but also customers, colleagues, and partners.
In a 2021 survey by PWC (1) 76% of customers said they would discontinue relations with companies that treat employees and the environment poorly. And in a 2021 survey by Deloitte (2) 30% of all respondents said they would consider switching jobs to work at a more sustainable company.
But beyond the demands, what benefit will it bring? The common reasons quoted are that it’ll improve top-line growth, reduce costs, increase employee productivity and investment returns… but surely there’s a higher power at play here that often gets overlooked? That it’s the right thing to do and can ultimately make the world a better place.
Sustainability vs ESG
So how do you go about building sustainability and ESG into your brand?
Firstly, although these terms are often used interchangeably, they technically mean different things. ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) refers to a framework used to help stakeholders understand a business's approach to risks and opportunities within these area, while 'sustainability' has become a more general term for ‘doing good’. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use ‘sustainability’ to discuss the term in its broadest sense.
Having helped many loved and respected brands to navigate this changing landscape and make a real difference in the world through their sustainability efforts, we’ve learned a few things along the way.
Here are our top five common risks and how to avoid them:
Common risk #1: Being called out for greenwashing
One of the first things you’re going to need to be able to answer is what role sustainability plays in your brand story. And if you’re answering this question only as a Marketing team, it’s very likely that what you end up creating will be likely to fail and / or be called out as greenwashing. You only need to scan the headlines to see that a war is currently raging against reputable, global brands (including Unilever, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and DWS Group) who are being called out by authorities and regulators for misleading customers and investors with over-exaggerated ethical claims. Your ambition may well be to use your brand to make the world a better place, but if your key stakeholders haven’t signed up to this and if it’s not clearly articulated and managed across your whole business, it’ll be nothing more than a few misleading, fuzzy, feel-good words.
A solution: Find the role sustainability plays in defining your Clear Defendable Territory
Be realistic as a business on what you want to achieve and think long and hard about how sustainability fits within your commercial strategy and impacts the wider brand story. Is it your guiding purpose that influences everything you do? Or one of multiple pillars that you build your brand on? Or even just a single proof point? Either way, it should be credible and unique to you. We call this Clear Defendable Territory – which you can find out more about here.
Common risk #2: Being short sighted
Too often we’ve seen the latest shiny-new initiative be treated as the jewel in a brand’s crown – dressed up with its own sustainability logo, colours, fonts and graphics that either overshadow or jar with the rest of the brand’s identity. The risk is that this can cause confusion, over-emphasise the role sustainability plays in the brand’s story and trip people up further down the line when another new initiative is introduced. So, tread carefully.
A solution: Create clear and future proofed signposting
Once you’ve agreed what role sustainability plays, you need to make sure everyone can quickly and easily understand it for themselves. When we worked with European retail outlets brand VIA on articulating their sustainability proposition, we agreed that sustainability was a part of, not the whole, of their story. Via made a commitment that their centres would be managed with care, and for a sustainable future. So, when communicating this, we made sure it clearly linked to the overarching brand identity; signposted with the same approach to fonts, imagery, layouts and tone of voice. Layered on top of this was a bespoke initiative badge, tailored iconography and messaging to help their audiences understand the context and content.
Common risk #3: The desire to educate
We get it. There’s a lot you may be looking to communicate when you’re talking about sustainability, but there’s a risk you fall into the trap of over-educating, sounding preachy and negative (i.e. here are all the problems in the world that we need to solve).
A solution: Get the tone right
Put yourself in your reader's shoes, is this what will grab their attention and make them want to read on? When creating the brand for a tech start-up who’d developed a radical new way of incentivising the regeneration of biodiversity around the world (who are now called Pivotal), it would have been all too easy to get tangled up in the complexity of their offer and create a complex solution focused on the uninspired and negative language of ‘carbon offsetting’. Instead, we turned things on their head and built a brand that looked to explain the problem simply, and positively. We introduced the term ‘Nature Uplifts’ to capture the positive impact that funding regenerative projects can have, which in turn could be used to quickly describe the unit of biodiversity value that could ultimately be traded in a similar way to carbon credits.
Common risk #4: Being a sheep
There’s a well-trodden visual narrative in the world of sustainability. Just Google ‘sustainability’ and you’ll see the same things come up time and time again; green, leaves, globes, recycle symbols, happy people, hands (often holding globes!) Brands invest millions trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors and reflect their unique personality, and yet when it comes to communicating their sustainability offer this often goes out of the window. It’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place for some of these devices – they can give a quick shorthand to what you’re trying to communicate. But ask yourself, what is your reason for choosing each element? Is a leaf really the clearest way to signpost your sustainability offer? Does a sea of smiling faces really represent the breadth of what makes this offer unique and differentiated?
A solution: Be a peacock
Think long and hard before defaulting to lazy clichés. Farfetch is a great example of this. When communicating their vision of becoming the global platform for good in luxury fashion, we wanted to make sure it felt inclusive, engaging, and outward-looking. Our approach was to capture ‘Farfetch on a good day’. With not a hint of green or single globe in site, the ‘Positively Farfetch’ brand has a confidence and distinctiveness that is in keeping with the rest of their identity.
Common risk #5: Thinking you’re finished
You may have spent months, even years defining and refining your sustainability strategy, which has become like a precious baby to you. But you’re setting yourself up for a fall if you convince yourself that what you’ve produced is the finished article. At some point, you’ll need to let it fly the nest, grow, and evolve if it stands the chance of succeeding in the world and delivering real impact.
A solution: Make this a journey you share
To do this will involve engaging others in your sustainability efforts and allowing them to influence and help shape your sustainable vision. So, think about how you want your sustainability strategy to be introduced to the world and what you’re asking people to do in return. How can they get involved? How can they make it even better? For the up-coming Championships, Wimbledon wanted to let visitors know all about the great things they were doing with their partners in the area of sustainability. But we know that people don’t go to the Championships to be educated, they go to be entertained. So, we took their strategy out of the realms of an educational PPT into an immersive and exciting experience. We gave visitors the chance to experience Wimbledon in 2030; showcasing the wide variety of brand and partner initiatives currently underway and the sustainable commitments they’d pledged for the future. Through interactive booths, gamification and opinion polls we turned the experience into a two-way conversation, allowing visitors to help shape Wimbledon’s future.
The world will benefit
As we’ve seen, there’s a vast opportunity available when it comes to sustainability and ESG branding. Amid the cynicism of greenwashing, there are some businesses out there doing some genuinely amazing things that the world would benefit from knowing about, and getting involved in. Just remember to be realistic on your goals, clear about the role sustainability will play in your brand, and create something that’s exciting, memorable and inclusive. It’s your chance to change the world.