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Billions in Brand Value at Risk If Sustainability Perceptions, Performance Are Unaligned

New research quantifies the financial value of sustainability perceptions for hundreds of the world’s biggest brands — and the substantial risks of not living up to them.

First launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Brand Finance's Sustainability Perceptions Index showed that for many of the world’s most valuable businesses, there can be billions of dollars of financial value to be gained from enhanced ESG action and associated communication.

Now, for the new Sustainability Gap Index, brand-valuation consultancy has recalculated the valuations of each brand by considering its ESG performance, utilizing data from CSRHub. The newly derived values, in conjunction with the Sustainability Perceptions Scores (SPS) disclosed in the new report, expose whether public perceptions align with the actual performance of each brand — and the financial risks associated with any gap.

As Robert Haigh, Strategy & Sustainability Director at Brand Finance, explains in the report:

“Highlighting the link between finance and sustainability is timely and essential; but the message isn’t a new one. However, a sticking point has been that without articulating the case in financial terms, enabling evaluation of business cases and return on investment analysis, it can be difficult to justify the kind of investment that is required to shareholders.

“Brand Finance has sought to solve this challenge. We have quantified the financial value of sustainability perceptions for hundreds of the world’s biggest brands. Our research shows that even for individual businesses, there can be billions of dollars of financial value to be gained from enhanced action and associated communication. Equally, there can be billions at risk from insufficient action that leads to accusations of greenwashing, or even misallocated or excessive investments in sustainability communication that does not cut through. We hope this report is a useful first step in understanding the financial significance of sustainability perceptions to your business, including the value that you may stand to lose!”

Closing the perception gap

As detailed in the report, where a brand’s sustainability performance exceeds that of public perception, there is an opportunity to rapidly generate value by communicating the brand’s genuine commitment to sustainability more effectively. Conversely, where perception exceeds performance, value is at imminent risk — as brands leave themselves open to public backlash and a ‘correction’ of their sustainability perceptions value.

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For example, Brand Finance found Amazon to have the highest sustainability perceptions value of any brand — US$19.9 billion. The ecommerce giant may not be perfect; but consumers appear to have confidence that it is committed enough to minimizing its impacts for them to continue to use its services. But if Amazon fails to keep pace with perception through a precautionary approach to improving its sustainability performance, and honest communication about its progress, those billions of dollars of value could be at risk.

View larger graphic here.

Another such brand is Tesla. Known as a pioneer of electric-vehicle, solar and battery technologies, Tesla’s image has clearly carried across into the perceptions held by global consumers. The company has the highest proportion of value underpinned by sustainability perceptions of any brand (26.9 percent) resulting in a Sustainability Perceptions Value of US$17.8 billion. However, the strength of this perception creates its own risk — because whilst Tesla performs well on environmental components of sustainability, it is weaker on governance and measures of social sustainability. Tesla’s weaker CSRHub scores therefore create a value at risk of up to US$4.1 billion — more than any other brand in the table.

Conversely, Microsoft has the highest positive gap value of any brand according to Brand Finance’s research — US$1.5 billion. This reveals that Microsoft’s sustainability performance largely exceeds its public sustainability perception, thanks to a phenomenon on the flipside of greenwashing known as ‘greenhushing’ — in which brands under-report their sustainability progress or credentials for fear of being accused of greenwashing — which, Brand Finance posits, means there is an opportunity for Microsoft to generate up to US$1.5 billion by speaking more loudly and clearly about its sustainability initiatives and services.

View larger graphic here.

Meanwhile, luxury fashion house Chanel is an example of a brand that has both a (relatively) high Sustainability Perceptions Score (4.88/10) and a high CSRHub score. By engaging with a wide range of stakeholder groups, Chanel can better align its sustainability performance with its sustainability perception through strong, authentic sustainability communication.

“The Sustainability Perception Index is a much-needed tool for marketers and agencies to steer their efforts and get the balance right between greenhushing and greenwashing," says Thomas Kolster — a globally renowned speaker and author on the intersection of marketing, business and sustainability. "Ultimately, it showcases the value of real action — not just shouting against the wind.”

Sectors as sustainability drivers

While Brand Finance found that sustainability plays a powerful role in brand perception at the premium end of all sectors, the research also found that it is more likely to act as a differentiator for brands in certain sectors. For instance, the average role of sustainability in driving choice in the luxury auto sector is 22.9 percent (which could partly explain the lasting halo effect for Tesla). It might seem counterintuitive that brands often associated with high fuel consumption are reliant on a reputation for sustainability. However, in luxury auto — where the purchase is discretionary and the brand is publicly expressed — the appeal of sustainability is further enhanced. Other sectors in which sustainability plays a powerful role are soft drinks (13.7 percent), supermarkets (12.6 percent), media (10.1 percent) and personal-care products (10 percent). For soft drinks and supermarkets, the potential impact of the products in question is a lot more tangible for consumers than in many sectors — due to growing understanding of impacts such as plastic pollution, deforestation and other agricultural impacts, or food miles. In cosmetics, many brands have found success marketing attributes including clean and sustainable ingredients; avoidance of animal testing; and ethical supply chain initiatives.

The bottom line is, the time that companies could ignore the tangible financial link between sustainability and brand perception has come and gone — as has the era of greenwash. In the report, IAA Public Policy Council Chair Jeffrey A. Greenbaum offers brands a great starting point for proceeding authentically: "One thing that every advertiser should do is review their marketing with a view toward replacing ambiguous, general environmental benefit claims that could have the capacity to mislead consumers with claims that promote specific environmental benefits that are backed up by proper substantiation.”