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Marketing and Comms
How 15 Major Consumer Brands Are (or Aren't) Effectively Leveraging Sustainability Communication

It’s commonly assumed that mainstream Main Street isn’t interested in sustainability. Shoppers will buy on price, performance and reliability. They’re swayed by celebrity endorsements and some of them want to be associated with stuff that’s cool. But being sustainable? Not a chance.

But isn’t the price we pay for products a question of sustainability? Consider the costs to grow the crops and raise the livestock to supply the food we buy. How can the farmers we depend on make a living when the prices in the supermarkets are so cheap? Then there is the reliance on ingredients such as corn sugar and salt to flavor-stack low-cost food. Are these foods sustaining us or making us ill? The same core questions can be asked of the detergents and soap we use, the clothes we buy, the cars we drive and the services we depend on to run our modern life.

Increasingly consumers are asking these profound sustainability questions, and they are starting to make purchasing decisions around the way products affect their health and lives and the way brands conduct themselves. While it’s true that most consumers won’t go out of their way to pay more for “sustainable” products, they also don’t want to buy from companies that could be doing them, their family and their community (including the environment) harm.

Their actions — we call it ‘soft sustainability’ — already are having an impact. They are prompting fast food companies to change their menus. They are forcing food producers to take a stand on genetically modified crops and retailers to shift to organic supply chains. They are pushing household and personal goods manufacturers to use non-toxic components in cleaning products and they are holding apparel makers to account over working conditions in their factories and those of their suppliers. All of these issues sit at the heart of sustainability in business and influence people’s buying decisions. It’s just when real people talk about them they don’t use the language of corporate sustainability.

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How brands react to this increasingly well-informed and opinionated consumer will likely have a big impact on their future reputation, credibility and sales. That’s why, in our opinion, companies need to embrace sustainability at a brand level rather than making it a corporate conversation.

In Sustainly’s second annual Big Brand Report, we take a fresh look at the disconnect between what 15 major consumer goods companies say about sustainability from a corporate point of view and how they talk to consumers through 175 of their biggest brands. The brands include a host of household names including: Always, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Dove, Guinness, Johnson & Johnson’s Baby, Kleenex, McDonald’s, Tide, Twinings, Walker’s Crisps and many more.

The lens we’ve chosen to look at the brand/consumer conversation through is Facebook - arguably the biggest global platform for brands to reach consumers. Brands, for better or worse, are heavily invested in Facebook as a marketing platform but all too often they are trying to talk at Facebook users rather talk with them.

This is a big mistake on the part of the brands because it’s clear from spending any time on Facebook that people are asking serious sustainability questions about nearly every major brand.

How much of the consumer opinion shared on Facebook actually feeds back into corporate sustainability or brand marketing strategy? It’s hard to say but one thing is clear: If sustainability advocates within the world’s biggest companies need any more evidence that real people care about the issues they are implementing within their organisations, then reading their own brands’ Facebook pages is a good starting point.

The Big Brand Report is available for all free members of Sustainly.