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How Sustainable Communications Can Help You Survive the Recession
Diana Verde of Clownfish

April, 2009

Consumers are now increasingly demanding that the brands they interact with are environmentally and socially responsible; globally, 79% would prefer to buy products from environmentally responsible companies (Havas Global Media Survey, May, 2008). And this burgeoning movement of conscious consumers isn't only to be found in wealthy Western economies; consumers in emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil are even more engaged than their peers in Europe and the US.

Responding to the sustainability agenda creates 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 the brand to deliver a service beyond the products they sell; helping consumers to reduce their environmental impacts. But this can only be a credible strategy 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 it the focus for most marketing is value. In such a crowded market, where every brand is pushing the 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 sizeable market share when it ends.

So what is sustainable communication? It's about dematerialisation; increasing the emotional value of brands while decreasing the physical resources that are used in creating their communications. And enhancing the emotional value of your brand engenders loyalty and trust, which are both highly valuable assets today.

Sustainable communications 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 greenwash, 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. But up until now, the communications industry has not helped to build trust between business and consumers, especially when it comes to communicating sustainability. Consumers are sceptical and confused - recent research from Forrester 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 why 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 over the next 12 to 18 months, 60% of companies will move to digital marketing activities in order to communicate more sustainably (Environmental Leader, October, 2008). 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 4 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 NGOs and are even being banned; in the UK, the ASA ruled 19 ads should be withdrawn for making misleading green claims in 2007, a rise from the 10 banned in 2006 (The Guardian, November, 2007).

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. 88% consumers have a positive association with the concept of energy efficiency, while only 61% feel the same way about "green" (The Shelton Group, October, 2008). Eco-labelling, while sometimes helpful, does not always provide clarity. When Boots, a British retailer, surveyed its consumers after labelling a range of shampoos with its carbon footprint, they found that 28% didn’t know that a product's carbon footprint was related to climate change (Climate Change Corp, January, 2008).

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, and as such, principles should be applied consistency 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 market place.

Conversation: in the old world of the Mad Men, the brands that won were those that told the best stories. But digital is changing this and 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 your fans, get penetration into the bloggersphere 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.

About Diana Verde
Diana founded Clownfish in London in 2002, with the vision of creating a consultancy that put people, planet and profit at the heart of its business philosophy. Recognising that businesses, whether small or big, could be a force for good, Clownfish was born to help clients benefit from delivering practical solutions to the environmental and social challenges we face today.

Alongside her role as CEO of Clownfish, Diana has advised the Chartered Institute of Marketing's Sustainable Programme, and worked closely with a number of not-for-profit organisations, including WWF, Climate Group, Clinton Global Initiative, Tomorrow's Company, United Nations Environmental Programme, British Government and European Union.

About Clownfish
Clownfish is a sustainability and communications consultancy dedicated to making sustainability tangible for business. We balance geek with chic. We are not like a typical environmental consultancy and we certainly don't fit any environmentalist stereotypes. Our expertise in marketing and communications helps us bring sustainability to life for our clients and their customers. Our team has expertise in a myriad of disciplines, including environmental technology, eco-design, human biology, corporate responsibility and economic development.

About CSRwire's Video, Commentary, and Research
CSRwire's Video, Commentary, and Research section demonstrates the visual impact of CSR initiatives, provides a forum for opinions, and collects and organizes research. VCR highlights videos, podcasts, and presentations. It also includes news digests that put CSR issues into context, with a special focus on activists' viewpoints and public policy initiatives. Blogs call attention to expert personal commentary. Research and data is organized for CSR professionals. invites multimedia contributions by businesses, NGOs, CSR professionals, and site users including: video, podcast/audio, slide show presentations, mini-documentaries, statements, maps and graphs, calls to action, and other educational, CSR-related material. All material must be non-commercial. There is no charge for this service.

CSRwire is the leading source of corporate social responsibility and sustainability news, reports and information. CSRwire members are companies and NGOs, agencies and organizations interested in communicating their corporate citizenship, sustainability, and socially responsible initiatives to a global audience through CSRwire's syndication network and weekly News Alerts. CSRwire content covers issues of Diversity, Philanthropy, Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) Environment, Human Rights, Workplace Issues, Business Ethics, Community Development and Corporate Governance.


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