If ever there was a time for the world’s leading brands to show leadership in sustainability, that time is now.
Globally, the political resolve to combat climate change is being challenged by the arrival of a new US president who considers global warming a “hoax.” Resource scarcity and shrinking biodiversity are a growing concern for more and more areas of the planet. Immigration fears are being stoked by nationalist politicians throughout the world; and attaining racial and gender diversity continues to be an unattained goal in many parts of global society.
All of these are issues that many of the world’s biggest companies have taken a strong stand on because they know that sustainability has a direct effect on their business success. Why then are these companies often still so afraid to talk about the importance of sustainability to the people who buy their products?
For Sustainly’s latest Big Brand Report, we trawled the Facebook pages of 165 major brands owned by 15 of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies, including Coca-Cola, Danone, Diageo, General Mills, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, PepsiCo, P&G and Unilever.
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Our rationale for looking at Facebook is simple. It’s the biggest and most influential social network in the world, and, because of this, it’s the social media platform that nearly every consumer brand wants to be part of. What better forum, then, for sustainability-minded companies to educate, inspire and inform their consumers about the work they are doing?
Some brands are doing some of that to some extent. Our research found 46 consumer brands that had actively talked about sustainability issues to their Facebook fans during the first six months of 2016. But that’s just 28 percent of the total brands we studied - a fairly paltry awareness raising return on the commitments and investments the parent companies are making internally.
So what’s going wrong? Obviously the problem isn’t with the brands’ faith in Facebook. The social network delivers the 165 brands a combined audience of more than 935 million fans - exactly the sort of consumer reach the marketing and advertising community covets.
The most likely explanation for this communication chasm is that many brands still haven’t worked out the right tone and approach to talk about important social and environmental issues in an online medium where they assume consumers only want to receive upbeat, jokey encouragement to buy their products.
To demonstrate just how brands can tackle sustainability issues in a way that resonates with consumers we need look no further than the way major brands such as Dove, Always, Kleenex and even Axe/Lynx have made both female and male self-esteem a topic for mainstream conversation and concern.
By taking issues of perceived weakness and turning them into a strength, these brands are connecting emotionally with their consumer base and helping win over new consumers who identify with the brands’ message and actions.
Campaigns such as Always’ “Like A Girl” and Dove’s “Real Beauty” have resonated and built over the last few years for one core reason - each brand took the time to answer the question: What is our purpose? Or to put it in simpler terms: What do we stand for?
Other brands such as Cheerios, Nespresso, Kenco, Dove Chocolate and Guinness are asking the same questions, and are beginning to shape answers that connect with demands of a changing world and society. That’s not to say any of these brands has a perfect approach to sustainable business. In fact, they all have flaws in some parts of their operations - as the sustainability experts within the brands’ parent companies would readily admit.
But as the major consumer goods companies continue to improve in terms of sustainable sourcing, operations and management they will have stronger stories to tell to a public whose lives also are being shaped by sustainability issues including climate change, diversity, supply chain and resource scarcity, as well as increased urbanisation and technological change.
Not all brands will stand up to this scrutiny of What Do You Stand For? Some will fail. But, in a changing world where being sustainable increasingly equates with performance and success, those brands that can pull their weight when it comes to contributing to society and looking after the planet will have a story consumers want to listen to.