Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can you sell sustainability to customers ?

Sustainable Life Media have done it again, with a great new SLM Insights research report called The SHIFT Report : Definng Sustainability and Selling it to Customers. With a title like that, how could your interest not be piqued ? The report promises to answer some of the most difficult questions facing brands today, including :

**  what is the alignment between my brand's positioning and our sustainability story?
**  what's my audience's relationship with sustainability?
**  what are the characteristics of a socially responsible brand for consumers today?

These questions cut to the chase and the report offers very keen insights and answers.

The SHIFT report was produced as a collaboration between Sustainable Life Media and Ci, a sustainability research and brand consultancy and is the result of a survey of 5,000 North American adults. The big thing that the report conclusively confirms is that consumers regard sustainability as more than just "green". for them, it's a collection of issues which are much broader than protecting the environment. In fact, the report identifies four colours of consumer perception about sustainability:

Orange - Personal (balanced life, feeling connected, personal well-being)
Yellow - Spiritual (higher purpose and meaning to life beyond material possessions)
Green - Environmental (eco-fashion, global warming, pollution, recycling etc)
Blue - Social (fair trade, treatment of employees, community involvement etc)

(Wonder why they didn't pick shocking pink?)(OK, I know, it's too shocking).

In fact, the top 5 sustainability issues that consumers associated with sustainability were orange, yellow and blue. Not even a tiny splatter of green until  you get to the ninth sustainabillty issue on the list.

The overriding conclusion from this research is that sustainability is a cultural shift and not just a passing trend. with 64% of respondents confirming they have a general concern for society and planet and want to be part of a better world. Funnily enough, 64 % (maybe the same 64%, maybe not) picked honest communication and transparency as the most significant characteristic they look for in determining whether a product is sustainable or not, 61% mention that reusable packaging is a very big plus and 57% look for a "Made Locally" label. TV advertising is still a key place for consumers to learn about new brands, whilst 67% of North Americans want to know about the socially responsible behaviour of brands before they buy them.

The report goes on to define the four keys to sustainable brand communications and the four barriers to conscious consumption which are time, knowledge, price and pressure . This is important because at least part of the complex explanation for consumers not buying sustainably is lack of knowledge, or, I assume, inability to compute the information that is available. Finally,  the SHIFT report talks about the Sustainability Passion Index (SPI) which categorizes consumers into 5 types according to their positioning on the commitment-to sustainability consumption spectrum, providing clues as to how to market to them.

All of this is important for those engaged in selling brands and the positioning of brands to meet consumer expectations and aspirations. There is no doubt in my mind that we are experiencing a cultural shift, though I suspect it is still in the early stages. Perhaps part of this shift will see us moving in the direction of much more accessible, legible, comprehensible, and focused sustainability communications with consumers. It still amazes me that we do not see many sustainability messages on actual consumer products. United Airlines realized that they have a captive audience for their sustainability message  on their flights and ensure that every seat pocket is equipped with a CSR report alongside the vomit-bag. Ahem. I am sure that's not intentional and that there is no causal relationship between these two. Haha. Sorry, United. But the point is, sustainability is a message which has to be taken to where the consumer is. With so many brands on the supermarket and big-box shelves, and consumers wanting to know more, surely some form of communication in the brand package could be worthwhile. Perhaps is is only a matter of time until we see Sustainability Reports by brand rather than by Company, or at least, in addition to  overall company reports. The new Barcoo system which offers  consumers a price comparison, test reports, health, green and sustainability information about the manufacturing company at the click of an app may well serve to meet consumers' information needs about the company behind the brand, though not necessarily about the sustainability of the brand itself. If I were a manufacturing company, I would make completely sure that I control what gets into that barcode app through proactive and transparent communications. 

Anyway, for the time being, I haven't tested Chunky Monkey with the new barcode system. I wonder where that places me on the Sustainability Passion Index.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainabilty Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via www.twitter.com/elainecohen  on Twitter or via my business website www.b-yond.biz/en  (BeyondBusiness, - CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)

1 comment:

James Bedell said...

This to me is an interesting concept, but I'd like to know more about their sampling methods and how the questions were asked. Quite simply I think SLM has a dog in this fight and until an impartial polling/survey bureau like Pew takes this on, I'm skeptical of the results.

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