Green is the New Black

Green Is the New Black

It was the announcement heard round the coffee-drinking world.

This summer, Starbucks committed to eliminating single-use straws by 2020. Over the past few years, businesses have been shifting toward waste reduction—like eliminating plastic straws and other nonessential items—which is the result of careful cultural listening. Consumers have been making lifestyle changes to reduce their environmental footprint for years, and they are demanding that the products they purchase follow suit: 91% of global consumers expect brands to address social and environmental issues.[1]

If there was ever a time for brands to give more thought to creating an ongoing conversation with consumers about their values, it’s now.

The food industry is uniquely situated to quickly adapt to this shift, given the consumable nature of its products. Consider Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain that places sustainability at the center of its ethos. Every utensil, bowl, lid and leftover bit of salad that comes from the store is compostable. In fact, everything purchased inside of a Sweetgreen is either recyclable or compostable, so that nothing ends in a landfill. The commitment to sustainability is part of how the restaurant developed a cult-like following that has driven a 50% increase in new stores in the last two years. Continual efforts, like the recently introduced new bowl meant to cut back on food and water waste, lets customers know that sustainability isn’t just a trend, but part of Sweetgreen’s fabric.

As with any type of purpose-driven strategy, self-serving efforts are easy to spot. For years, hotels have encouraged guests to reuse linens to “save the earth” to reduce their use of water and chemicals. But the reality is clear to savvy guests: fewer washes means a lower laundering cost. That doesn’t mean the hospitality industry doesn’t sincerely value water conservation, it just means that hotels can benefit from transparency in their approach to sustainability.

Take Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which offers a “Make a Green Choice” program, in which guests are rewarded with loyalty points or a food and beverage voucher when making sustainable choices. This reflects a conversation between brand and consumer, one that benefits both and diminishes the lopsided benefit to the brand. With 79% of travelers placing an importance on properties with environmentally minded practices,[2] it is clear that conservation is not just a niche concern, but a broadly accepted demand.

For decades, the directive has been “more.” Shop more. Buy more. But what happens when a company urges customers to consume less—even if that includes its own product? Outdoor gear retailer Patagonia shocked Black Friday shoppers a few years ago when it ran an ad that urged, “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” It asked consumers to “buy less and reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else,” and included a list of initiatives Patagonia was taking to support a culture of reduced consumption. This campaign was more than just a bold move to endear the brand to the environmentally conscious—it put potential customers in the hot seat as well, asking them to consider the impact of their actions.

The differentiating point between this waste reduction trend and environmentally motivated brand tactics of the past is that it is in many ways a two-way street, requiring a conversation between brand and consumer to truly succeed. Reducing one’s environmental footprint requires adopting habits that may be at first unfamiliar and uncomfortable for both parties. It’s a new frontier that not all brands are willing to explore, but as with so many trends, early adopters are likely to be rewarded for seeing the bigger picture sooner.

[1] http://www.conecomm.com/research-blog/2015-cone-communications-ebiquity-global-csr-study
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/28/business/hotels-embrace-sustainability-to-lure-guests-and-cut-costs.html

Brands Can Have Existential Crises, Too

Purpose-Driven

The saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything,” and in the current landscape, brands are finding themselves held to the same convention. Purpose-driven marketing has saturated the marketplace in recent months, with brands as diverse as Audi and Pepsi aligning their products with a mission or a cause, to varying degrees of success.

As consumers have become more vocal about their values and activism, brands recognize the opportunity to better bond with their targets. Identifying and aligning with causes important to their audiences not only helps to dimensionalize a brand, but creates emotional connections. When Audi used its Super Bowl spend on the issue of equal pay for equal work, it demonstrated an understanding of their target’s closely-held ideals.

As always, authenticity is key. Savvy consumers see through a half-baked attempt to jump on the purpose-driven bandwagon. Consider Pepsi’s protest spot, which featured model Kendall Jenner abruptly leaving a photoshoot to join a passing protest, before uniting cops and protesters with a can of Pepsi. It carried a muddled and confusing message, and to many, trivialized social and political demonstrations. The lesson is to ensure the connection between the brand and the mission not only makes sense, but feels genuine.

With 91% of Millennials saying they would switch to a brand associated with a cause, it’s clear that space to demonstrate purpose will quickly become crowded.[1] Companies aligning with a community’s values, however, should be prepared to fully make a commitment to this new way of thinking. The more visible the alignment, the greater the expectation that they live and operate according to those values. These brands will no longer be able to stay silent on an issue related to its purpose, lest their socially-driven consumers see that silence as a position.

The companies that will win in this space will be those willing to not only demonstrate care of issues, but to stand for values that may alienate a segment or cause interruptions in growth. Audi did this by building their Super Bowl creative around the issue of gender pay gap. CVS dropped tobacco sales from their stores, Starbucks committed to hiring 10,000 refugees, and Target announced an inclusive transgender bathroom policy.

Each of the companies mentioned received varying response in their purpose stances: Target’s was most visible, with a boycott called for by a conservative organization. While Target’s same-store sales decreased during that period (which the company said was unrelated to the announcement), they received wide-spread acclaim from human rights organizations, which landed them on multiple “best places to work” lists. The reward is trading an identity with semi-universal appeal for one that connects more readily to a narrower, but higher-indexing target with greater loyalty.

We’re close to a world where consumers will make purchase choices not based on lifestyle aspirations, but on their worldview and belief system. Aligning with a brand will feel like a form of self-expression, with products serving as a physical representation of the values by which consumers define themselves. Brands will need to evaluate not only their own beliefs, but those of their target, and then decide if branching into the purpose-driven world is worth the risk. Our prediction? In the coming months, more and more brands will decide that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

[1] http://www.conecomm.com/news-blog/new-cone-communications-research-confirms-millennials-as-americas-most-ardent-csr-supporters

Does Your Brand Have an Opinion?

Does your brand have a voice?
Does your brand have a voice?

Less than three weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled five to four that all Americans, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, have the right to marry. Immediately, brands joined the public in voicing their support for the vote through their social media feeds, illustrating that—once forbidden territory—marketers are stepping forward and publicly taking a stand on issues previously thought “too political.”

Consumer Connections Through Cause 

With the rise of social media marketing, companies are attempting to be more human, hoping to relate to their consumers as they connect with them. Brands are creating roles as friends and peers, instead of large corporations with communication becoming more individualized and localized. These “personal“ connections are subsequently leading them to pipe up on issues that are relevant to their consumers: in this case products from JELL-O to Cheerios and Target to Uber, posted photos incorporating the rainbow flag into their products, receiving generally positive feedback from their social communities.

The Constant Search for Relevancy

Consumer-driven social media is dictated by the people. Constant updates are made to Facebook based on fan feedback and new apps are popping up to fill voids in the social sphere, which will only grow. And as those budgets increase, companies must be ready to add a relevant opinion to the conversation on issues that don’t directly involve their products and that extend beyond what is happening in the headlines.

It is important for brand owners to start planning now and thinking beyond the basic values of their marketing identity. By developing guidelines for their social and political stances, they will set up more opportunities to engage and ensure that they can join the conversation quickly and connect further with their fan base.