Sustainable businesses must walk the talk

Should the practice of branding be different for businesses striving to be sustainable? Chances are about half the readers of this column will say “yes” and the other half “no.”

That’s what my partners in the Sustainable Branding Collaborative of Portland found in a survey of sustainability advocates in business. About half said branding is branding: The pursuit of sustainability shouldn’t alter branding practices that have been honed over many years. The other half felt companies striving to be sustainable need to place a greater emphasis than conventional branding does on authenticity, honesty and “walking the talk.”

Why does this question matter? Because sustainability is a way of conducting business — for most companies, a much different way. Just ask firms such as Walmart, whose embrace of sustainability has caused profound change in how they and their suppliers operate.

The question then is whether those changes should also apply to the practice of branding. I’m among the half that believes it does.

A new KPMG study fuels my belief. It found “enhancing brand reputation” to be the number one business driver for sustainability among the surveyed companies. Leaders of those businesses would do well to remember that reputations can be just as easily damaged as enhanced when leaning on sustainability for brand value. BP, anyone?

BP relied on conventional branding — where the mantra is creating “an emotional connection” — to suggest the company was moving beyond petroleum. In branding, the job of connecting emotionally is typically left to marketing and advertising. History suggests that works for many product categories where competitive differentiation is scant and great advertising is their only hope of making consumers care.

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Rich Bruer is principal of R.Bruer Company, a branding and strategic communications firm in Portland serving environmentally and socially responsible businesses and organizations.

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