Sustainability Marketing in an Uncertain Economy

Eight Strategies to Keep Your Green Business Healthy

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Hilary Bromberg
Hilary Bromberg

Sustainability and "green" were the issues du jour for much of 2007 and 2008, but with the recent market crash, the national dialogue has turned more toward keeping a roof over your head than keeping a green roof over your head. So what's a sustainable brand to do? Here are a few strategies to keep you afloat.

1. Take pride in your beliefs.
There's a strong core of people who will continue to care about sustainability. They've been getting on the path for quite some time now -- buying organics, recycling, embracing responsible companies, seeking out local products, seeking less-toxic products, seeking mind-body wellness and a simpler lifestyle. These behaviors constitute sustainability. It's a psychic evolution that people go through over time, and it's difficult to go backward. We'll likely see pullbacks from the double-digit growth we've seen in most sustainability sectors during the past decade, but the fundamentals here are still sound. Edelman's 2008 Goodpurpose study confirms this: 68% of people still want to purchase products from socially responsible companies, economics be damned.

2. Be more socially responsible than ever.
Conscious consumers care much more about a company's internal, socially responsible actions (how they treat employees) than about its environmentally responsible ones. And this sentiment will only grow stronger during this era of massive layoffs and pay cuts. Did you know that Patagonia lets everyone go surfing when the tide is high? That the revolutionary Brazilian company Semco lets employees (er, "associates") determine their own salaries? That Google offers everyone on its main campus three organic meals each day? Companies that treat people well will be seen as islands of enlightenment, and the more you talk about the things you're doing that are truly humanistic, the more the "conscious consumer" will be drawn to your brand.

3. Promote quality over consumption.
In times like this, people will have a natural "sour grapes" attitude toward consumption in general and will resent the mere existence of goods they simply cannot afford, perhaps even rejecting the very idea of consumption. All the core tenets of sustainability are consistent with a less consumptive lifestyle and a more high-quality offering, so if you're in this space, you're probably already poised for success during a recession. Patagonia has actually elected to halt growth altogether. It's reduced its clothing line by 30%, proclaiming that people simply do not need that much stuff, and that its products are made to last. Now is the time to ask yourself some serious questions about your offerings, your brand and your messaging. Quality is a core conscious-consumer value and will become even more so as people become (by necessity) increasingly selective about their purchases.

Hilary Bromberg, a novelist and former cognitive neuroscientist, is strategic director at Egg, a boutique brand-communications firm that works exclusively with sustainable brands. She is also the author of a white paper that offers more strategies for sustainable brands.

4. Leverage inexpensive and powerful social technologies.
Pay attention to digital outreach and two-way communications. Conscious consumers do a lot of talking within their networks about their discoveries, because a great find reflects well on a person's values -- unlike purchases in the vast unsustainable space, which merely identify a person as a consumer. So master the digital space; keep a transparent, two-way conversation going with your core consumers; and cultivate evangelists.

5. Attract with your values -- not your pricing.
Don't condescend to people with heavy-handed "value" messaging, which has become ubiquitous recently. As a sustainable brand, you're focused on a triple bottom line, and your core consumers care about this. By suddenly focusing on cost, you risk seeming manipulative and off-brand. Conscious consumers aren't buying your products because they're the cheapest; that was never your value proposition and never should be. You know about true cost economics, and so do your core consumers.

6. Give freely -- but carefully -- to build brand love.
Given that people will, realistically, have trouble affording you, be generous -- very generous. And if you do that with free stuff and loyalty programs, rather than price reductions, people will love you all the more. Price reductions cheapen your brand, while thoughtfully executed giveaways feel like gifts and create deep feelings of attachment. Sampling is one of the most powerful known tactics -- 24% of people, when given an in-store sample of a product, will buy it instead of the product they intended to buy, according to Arbitron's 2008 sampling study.

7. Be mindful of the growing cultural shift.
Understand the roots of the sustainability movement. That will give you the deepest clues about what to do, how to express it and what conscious consumers really want. Sustainability is not a fad or a trend. It's a seismic cultural shift, and it's here to stay. To the extreme conscious consumer (who dislikes the word "consumer"), our unsustainable mess of a burning planet is seen as a big sociocultural mistake facilitated by the short-sighted application of technological innovation and the amoral reach of unchecked capitalism. Record numbers of M.B.A. students want to incorporate sustainability into their careers; 80% of Fortune 500 companies have corporate-social-responsibility reports. We're just now emerging from a dark age, and as we ease out of decadent late capitalism and into a more sustainable way of life, transparency, authenticity, balance, egalitarianism and distributed models will become the norm.

8. Question whether consumers really need your offering.
Think hard about what you're selling. Question it from every angle, and ask yourself if it's truly necessary. Change is afoot. Peer-to-peer networks are developing powerful alternatives to gratuitous consumption: Fashionistas exchange unwanted clothing at "swishing" parties; makes hotels obsolete; freecycling, freeganism and all manner of "borrowing" networks are emerging. These trends challenge conventional purchasing models at every step. So ask yourself what you truly want to give people, whether they truly need it and -- crucially -- if they might just find another way to get it.

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