Don't worry, be sustainable

There's no doubt the hot topic of 2008 was sustainability. This was the year business went green.

Sustainability was on the front page of national newspapers almost daily - Kyoto, green miles, green-washing, carbon footprint, carbon pollution reduction schemes - it was enough to make even the hardiest environmentalist feel overwhelmed. But as Chris Bulford, Managing Director of Circ Consulting points out, with a little insight and planning, sustainability needn't be a problem for good marketers in 2009...

In response to the greener world we now live in, businesses and brands have been in a rush to be seen to be doing the right thing. Not only are companies offering staff rewards for turning off lights and printing on both sides of the paper, there is now a host of green products on the market, from carbon neutral beer and insurance to forest-friendly toilet paper.

Increasingly however, the race to be seen to be green approach is back-firing. In their haste, some companies have been entering the market with incomplete or ill-founded claims that are failing to gain traction with consumers.

CHOICE, the Australian Consumers Association magazine, recently surveyed supermarket products and found as many as 630 environmental claims on 185 products. What is concerning about the increasing number of environmental claims made by companies is that, according to a recent survey by research company Mobium Group, a massive 88% of consumers now describe themselves as 'sceptical' about the claims.

So what should marketers do?

Just as a marketer would assess the influence that, say, a focus on health and wellbeing might have on consumers, so too they must carefully consider the impact that a trend towards sustainability might have on the thoughts and behaviours of their customers.

Good marketers will research the market to learn more about consumer sentiment, and then develop a strategy to respond.

Questions you might ask are:

What impact has sustainability had on my customers, both current and potential?

Is sustainability top of mind or not even an after-thought for my customers?

Are my customers part of the growing 'lifestyle of health and sustainability' segment, or do they oppose it?

Importantly, there is no 'one-size-fits-all' green strategy, but different shades of green. The appropriate response will depend on your overall business strategy, existing brand proposition and capabilities.

For the brand, you will have to ask other key questions, such as:

Should sustainability impact my brand's essence, its values, and attributes?

What opportunities might exist to develop my brand?

Consider Toyota, Origin and Bluescope Water for example - all these companies have defined new segments for positive brand benefits but they also understand how these segments fit with their existing business.

Good marketers understand differentiation. The challenge is to steer away from the generic and search for the opportunities. Those that do so successfully will translate sustainability into new business opportunities and enhanced brand equity.

Chris Bulford is Managing Director of Circ Consulting, a company which advises clients on how to grow sustainable value in today's complex business world. Please send any comments or questions you have in relation to this article to: chris.bulford@circconsulting.com.au