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The danger of being ‘me too’ about sustainability

02 August, 2021

Sustainability has become a mainstream strand of brand communications, and not just in B2C. However, some of it feels insubstantial – particularly in the B2B space – and risks doing brands more harm than good.

The danger of being ‘me too’ about sustainability

Sustainability has been a brand thread for some mainstream brands like Patagonia since the 80s, and terms like ‘triple bottom line’ have been with us for decades, along with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Historically some fine words and a small budget for sponsorships around People, Planet and Profit were probably all that was required of a busy CEO, particularly in B2B. But this no longer enough, in fact it’s dangerous. Why?

First, because if it doesn’t matter to your Board yet, it will soon. B2B decision makers are consumers too. A recent CapGemini survey found that more than three quarters (79%) of consumers are changing their purchase preferences RIGHT NOW based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact. The average age of a B2B buyer today is 35, so Gen-Z and others are increasingly likely to be stepping up to become responsible for where and how a company spends.

Second, because if it doesn’t matter to your mainstream investors yet, it will soon. They are increasingly better educated and their analysts more probing around key measures. You don’t just need fine words around being a bit more sustainable, your brand needs to present strong facts and visible action. People increasingly care how and where their funds are invested. Even large established blue chip brands know, as Unilever CEO Paul Polman put it: “to be a good business person, you need to know as much in the future about sustainability as you know about sales. You need to know as much about climate change as you know about cash flow, and you need to know as much about international development as you do about business development”. Investors are also aware there is a potential revenue lift from doing it well: studies are already showing that brands promoting their true sustainability can boost revenue by up to 20%.

And third, if it doesn’t matter to most of your staff yet, it will soon. B2B brands are increasingly expected to assert an authentic sense of purpose, in words, policies and direct action and this is becoming key for recruiting and retaining top talent.

Real action by brands has to start with defining clear brand values and making them visible. Then you can ask ‘What persona does our brand represent in the market?’ and ‘What would our brand do about this issue if it were a person?’ If the brand starts from there, aligning action with visible brand values, it will drive revenue and promote a deeper emotional connection from staff and customers. The outcome might be your brand acting alone, which can be quicker and opportunistic or forming long term partnerships involving cross-promotion or collective action, such as industries forming alliances to end plastic waste, or steel manufacturers trying to decarbonise steelmaking.

BUT: the actions taken need to be more than ‘green sheen’ and should be carefully constructed to be a true win-win-win: for the planet, all partners, staff and investors. Done well they will be powerful in making a difference and providing genuine sustainability stories that resonate with staff and clients alike. Somewhere along the line the teams will have to show bravery and creativity. Your brand may well appear to ‘take a hit’ somehow – a small increase in short-term costs – but increasingly Boards can see that done well, the net gain will be greater (in brand equity, attracting investment, staff retention and other areas) and new opportunities will emerge. Window dressing will be seen for what it is, and brands will be called out for it.

B2B brands can and should be looking at ways to reduce their impact on our planet – tangibly demonstrating they are doing something rather than simply just communicating about it. Brands that take action in this space based on clear values will not only help the planet but start to generate a strong sustainability story and be winners as we return to more normal times. Your audiences will check at least three key measures, and any claims must be backed by strong facts and measurable action – ‘Greenwashing’ doesn’t work and will backfire.


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