Sustainability is Damaging Brands

Post pandemic, it feels like the sustainability trend is going to dominate. For a tired old brand cynic, it’s the next cab off the rank for brands to fetishise now that AR, QR codes and social media seem to have normalised.

As an issue, it’s increasingly politically and economically visible to consumers from their council’s recycling policies through to green energy and electric vehicles. That’s undeniably a good thing. 

But the problem we’re seeing is that brands don’t fully appreciate how to incorporate ‘sustainability’ into their brand. As a result, they’re becoming unmoored from their real purpose, chasing a sustainability narrative instead of their own product or service narrative. They’re losing focus and bleeding brand value because of it.

We’ve come up with some indicators that your brand may be sliding off course, losing yourself in sustainability. If these feel too close to home, it may be time to re-evaluate:


You think of it as a differentiator. 

Almost every organisation is now leaning into their sustainability credentials. It’s becoming a box that needs to be ticked. So, perhaps a statement of the bleeding obvious, that means it’s not really a key differentiator (unless your industry is starting from a really low base). This used to be called greenwash - which was mostly about green coloured recycling symbols. It’s now gone a wee bit deeper, and you can read about Sustainability Policies and Commitments to Carbon Reduction and Roadmaps to Net Zero on almost every corporate organisation’s home page now. They all sound very similar.

You mostly use it as a tie-breaker.

The cruel reality is consumers don’t care. About lots of things. Stop them in the street and ask them if they care about the environment and they’ll tell you it’s up there. Follow their shopping habits and they’ll prove themselves wrong. We all do it. Consumers want a good deal, a frictionless & hassle-free experience and all of it yesterday. If this brand also happens to be saving the planet - then all the better. And if it’s a tie between two brands and one has a better sustainability message, then it might sway the purchase. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s driving their decision making. 

I’m not saying that there aren’t groups of consumers and companies for whom it’s much more than that. There are, but they’re niche. For now. 

You think it’s part of your DNA.

This is where the real friction lies. In this process about getting serious around sustainability credentials, we feel that organisations are becoming confused about what lies at the heart of their offer - and what it is that makes them, ‘them’.  It’s easy to get distracted by the sustainability message - it’s a nice one and there’s lots of positivity there. But the trick has to be not to let this dominate the foundational values that define the corporate DNA. The message can certainly be complementary, but it’s not more important than the product or service you’re selling. If sustainability has come to dominate the brand conversation, then it might be time to take a big step back.

In my view there are very few large organisations who can claim, legitimately, that their sustainability philosophies form a core part of their brand. (I count one of our clients, Interface, among them). If this is the case, then it’s sensible to lean into it, being as clear and coherent as possible. Building a brand around sustainability won’t cut any corners. It takes as much time, money, and discipline as anyone else. In fact, I’d build on that to say that it might be harder because you’re up against sophisticated greenwash competition. Who is a consumer to believe? So, even if it is core to your brand, there’s still a lot of friction, indecision, and paranoia about how to assimilate it into the brand comms. Should it lead? How prominent? Does it need to be there all the time? Even brands like Interface wrestle with these brand and marketing decisions with every project.

You start adding more logos. 

Another tendency - related to the original greenwashing - is to create a new logo, or suite of logos to prominently display the brand’s commitment to the cause. These might be for products, services, reports, or departments - anything to generate noise and profile. However, we’d counsel caution here as these well-intentioned initiatives can run away with themselves over a period of months and cause confusion. Anything that distracts or divides attention away from the main mother brand is not a good thing. Better to build the sustainability messaging into the main brand, strengthening its salience within its target customer group.

If you’re already knee-deep in this stuff…

And if it feels impossible to hold the tide back, then the best thing to do is to embrace simplicity. Sustainability is one of these areas that seems simple on the surface but is actually very complex and scientific underneath. Organisations are guilty of overcomplicating comms at the best of times but add sustainability to the mix and they can’t help throwing terms around that most people haven’t even heard of, let alone make sense of. A recent Government study on public attitudes showed that 69% of the public hadn’t heard of or don’t know what Carbon Capture is. In the same study, 55% of people hadn’t heard of or didn’t know anything about Net Zero*. Our advice? Don’t touch the complexity unless you have to. Keep the messages broad, accessible, and easy to understand.

So, that’s it. Our advice is pretty clear. Sustainability is more likely to be complementary to your brand comms than integral. It’s a side salad, not the main course. Focus on what the customer wants, hold the extra logos and keep it simple, stupid.  

We've a podcast that goes into sustainability in more detail. Have a listen. 

*Government’s Public Attitudes tracker - March 2021.