The Four C's of Survival

How Sustainable Communications Can Help You Get Through the Recession

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Diana Verde Nieto
Diana Verde Nieto

Sustainable communication is key to getting through today's recession. Diana Verde Nieto, CEO of Clownfish, a sustainability and communications consultancy, offers the four Cs of survival.

Consumers are increasingly demanding that the brands they interact with are environmentally and socially responsible. According to Havas Media, globally, 79% would prefer to buy products from environmentally responsible companies. This burgeoning movement of conscious consumers isn't found only in wealthy Western economies; consumers in emerging markets such as Brazil, China and India are even more engaged than their peers in Europe and the U.S.

Responding to the sustainability agenda creates a competitive advantage for brands that actively communicate with consumers on the issues that matter to them. Moving from passive, one-dimensional communications to active engagement adds real value because it enables a brand to deliver a service in addition to a product, helping consumers reduce their environmental impact. But this can be a credible strategy only if the brand can demonstrate a real commitment to responsible business and sustainability. Environmental and social messages are simply not enough.

In a global market that's being hit hard by an economic downturn, it's no surprise that the focus for most marketing is value. In a crowded market, where every brand is pushing a value message, competitive advantage will come from differentiation. And in this context, sustainable communication offers real opportunities for enhancing brand equity. The brands that master it will be better placed to ride out the recession and poised to capture sizable market share when it ends.

So what is sustainable communication? It's about dematerialization, increasing the emotional value of a brand while decreasing the physical resources used in creating its communications. Enhancing the emotional value of your brand engenders loyalty and trust -- both highly valuable assets.

Diana Verde Nieto is CEO of Clownfish, a sustainability and communications consultancy founded in 2002 that helps companies realize sustainability opportunities in their products and processes and embed sustainability at the heart of their brands. Clownfish is a part of global digital-marketing network Isobar.

Sustainable communication is not about turning brands green overnight or using natural or typically "green" iconography in your communications. In fact, this approach can lead to accusations of "greenwashing," especially if you're in the automobile or petrochemical sector. Instead, it's about creating compelling communications, underpinned by fact, with a clear call to action for consumers.

There is a tangible opportunity for brands that create effective sustainable communications to stand out in a crowded market. Communications companies need to help build trust between business and consumers, especially when it comes to communicating sustainability. Consumers are skeptical and confused. Recent research from Forrester Research shows that as many as 77% of them don't believe the environmental claims made by brands. GfK-Roper reports that 64% want third-party verification of green claims. Confusion and lack of trust are among the main reasons consumers do not buy sustainable products.

At the same time, the market context is changing, because digital is transforming business dynamics. The power of search is incredible. Consumers can find anything, anytime, anywhere -- and they are actively seeking information about the brands with which they interact. There is simply no longer anywhere to hide.

But companies are missing opportunities to tap the interactive potential of the web, provide transparency and engage with a wider consumer base. That said, it is estimated that in the next 12 to 18 months, 60% of companies will move to digital-marketing activities in order to communicate more sustainably. And it will save them money, too, because digital offers real-time, measurable data on the effectiveness of campaigns, thereby improving efficiency and marketing ROI.

So what does it take to create sustainable communications? At Clownfish, we believe there are four principles, which conveniently fit into four C's: credibility, clarity, consistency and conversation. Putting them together in a creative solution will help to regain the trust of consumers.

Credibility: This means no more fluff. Communications have to be underpinned by robust, verifiable technical data. This may not sound exciting, but it's important, because sustainability communications without substance are being singled out by nongovernmental organizations and are even being banned. In the U.K. in 2007, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that 19 ads should be withdrawn for making misleading green claims, a rise from the 10 banned in 2006.

Clarity: Clear, genuine, authentic messages promote transparency, and research shows there is a positive correlation between transparency and trust. This means that instead of making vague statements about being "eco-friendly," touch points need to be tangible. According to Shelton Group, 88% of consumers have a positive association with the concept of energy efficiency, while only 62% feel the same way about "green." Eco-labeling, while sometimes helpful, does not always provide clarity. When Boots, a British retailer, surveyed its consumers after labeling a line of shampoos with its carbon footprint, they found that 28% didn't know that a product's carbon footprint was related to climate change.

Consistency: Sustainability is not a trend. In fact, at Clownfish, we believe it's the business model for the 21st century. Sustainability is systemic and not about tackling single issues. As such, it should be applied consistently across business processes. Companies need to develop long-term sustainability strategies that are matched by rigorous business discipline and create a movement, not a campaign. Consistency is also important in the sense that messages must resonate with the company's existing voice in the marketplace.

Conversation: In the old world of the Mad Men, the brands that won were those that told the best stories. But digital is changing that. In the new world, the brands that win will be those whose consumers and other stakeholders tell the best stories. It used to be a one-way narrative, and now it's a two-way conversation. Tap the interactive potential of the internet to engage your critics as well as allow your fans to get penetration into the blogosphere and create a clear call to action for your consumers.

But remember that ultimately (and this is coming from a sustainability-communications consultancy), what you do is more important that what you say.

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