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Sustainability Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

A majority of Americans can’t name a single sustainable brand – experts explain


By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

March 22, 2023 | 8 min read

Recent research from GFK found more half of US consumers couldn’t recall a single sustainable brand. Experts tell The Drum purpose-driven ads are getting lost in a sea of greenwashing.

Sustainable shopping bag

Sustainable comms aren’t resonating with consumers / Pexels

GFK’s annual Purpose Impact Monitor revealed that over half (57%) of US consumers couldn’t spontaneously identify any brands or companies making a positive difference in any of three key areas – the environment, diversity and inclusion, and giving back to the community. It also found only certain demographics were engaged with the topic at all.

Here, The Drum speaks to experts to fix this huge marketing problem.

The prevalence of greenwashing

According to GFK’s Purpose Impact Monitor, a majority of respondents couldn't name even one brand that they thought was taking care of the environment and fighting climate change.

Experts tell The Drum it’s because genuine messaging isn’t cutting through the greenwashing.

Dipti Bramhandkar, executive strategy director, Iris North America, believes this is, in part, because consumers have wised up.

“They are easily identifying messages and commitments that are relatively superficial or performative. Moreover, the number of sustainability-based messaging has increased to the point of invisibility. In some cases, consumers have discovered that the changes that companies have embarked on aren’t leading to substantive change, or are simply opportunistic.”

She adds that misleading ‘green claims’ in specific sectors have been identified by governing bodies, which contributes to the increasing lack of trust consumers have in companies’ true motives.

To ensure that good players aren’t drowned out, Camilla Yates, strategy director at Elvis advises, “brands need to ensure that they never compromise creativity for better world thinking – the two must go hand in hand in order to build the sustainable value creation that balances profit with a positive impact on people and the planet.”

While Fern Miller, executive strategy director at R/GA London says that if you’re hoping to make your climate comms cut through, brands hoping to become famous for their ESG work “need to invest in those initiatives and the promotion of them over the long term, just as they do in those parts of the business that pay back more directly.

“If your ESG projects are making a significant difference, then that is a message worth investing in, not just to get your name on the roster of big ESG spenders, but because it will help to overturn the seemingly low expectations in this research and elsewhere, that business can make a positive difference to our future lives, livelihoods and wellbeing.”

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The importance of intersectionality

Experts say that another issue is that sustainability is still seen as the reserve of higher earners, and not something that is accessible to people from every community.

According to the GFK research, Americans who make over $125,000 a year are much more likely to remember at least one brand supporting a cause, compared to those earning $30,000 to $60,000.

Ben Essen, Iris’ global strategy director says, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. “You get out what you put in. Research tells marketers that only 40% of the population is interested in sustainability messages, so marketers target that 40% with their sustainability messages. It shouldn’t be surprising that the other 60% aren’t listening – they weren’t being talked to in the first place.”

He says marketers need to move on from just selling purposeful products “at a premium with sophisticated, ‘urban elite’ design cues.”

“Purposeful communications capture the public’s attention when they connect with the things that they care about: community, family, fun and nature. For more on this, I’d recommend checking out Purpose Disruptors’ ‘citizens visions’ research.”

While Bramhandkar emphasizes that brands also need to look at engagement with climate change within the context of race, class and gender.

Where did Gen Z go?

Perhaps the most surprising takeaway from the research is that contrary to popular assumption, Gen Z are less engaged with sustainable brands than marketers might assume.

Across the board, people in this demographic scored below average when it comes to environmental attitudes. They were also more likely to say they “know little” about environmental issues and proved more skeptical of the idea that companies have a responsibility to care about the environment.

Malcolm Poynton, global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide, says “Let’s face it, unless you’re Patagonia, your brand is being remembered for the past 10 years’ product messages you’ve put out into the world, not your single 2023 sustainability message Gen Z just scrolled past. On top of this, pretty much all sustainability messaging looks like one huge Insta-repeat of clichés; green/diversity/insert-cause-here imagery. So, little wonder Gen Z don’t find it relevant, remember it or even half believe it.”

But, he says, the good news is brands do have the power to enact meaningful change if they do it right. “Ironically, it’s some of the luxury brands that seem to be leading the way – like Gucci’s Vault initiative introducing a new generation to the value of past generation products. These relevant and albeit small steps are what actually matter because consumers get to write a new version of the brand story for themselves by experiencing the change.”

Want to learn more about the most important issue of our time? Senior reporter Ellen Ormesher will explore the role advertising and marketing play in facilitating the climate crisis. Case studies, tips, interviews and more. Register your interest here.

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