Making Sense of Sustainability: A Starter Guide for Brands

05 Oct 2021
Making Sense of Sustainability: A Starter Guide for Brands
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In the quest to make real impact, too many brand approaches feel vague and generic. Here’s how to create a game-plan that doesn’t look like every other sustainability strategy out there.

It comes up in most every corporate planning session. It belongs in every brand strategy. It’s a leading decision driver for emerging consumers. But sustainability—a mammoth, complex concept that gets tossed around too casually—continues to elude many business leaders and marketers.

In a recent session with our top practitioners, we explored sustainability, going both deep and wide on the business challenges we’re seeing most—and how to guide brands forward as they develop their own sustainability strategies. Here are the biggest takeaways:

1. Realize “sustainability” means different things to different businesses.

Anna Pompilio

“Sustainability is a broad term, and it’s ever-changing. There’s no one official definition. It could mean sustainably farmed food. Or biodegradable packaging. Or putting dollars toward public land protection. Sustainability can mean a lot of things. It’s really about getting clear on your actions, and how they derive from your unique brand DNA.”

2. Start with the 4 Cs.

Michael Wintrob-cropped-250x250

“There are four vectors that should inform a sustainability strategy: Company, Consumer, Category and Channel. Context is everything, so the conditions affecting a heritage food CPG producing in the rural west will demand a very different set of solutions than, say, a young fashion e-commerce brand. These business models introduce different issues around environmental conservation, energy use, supply chain efficiency, access to materials… not to mention a diverse collection of consumer values to consider. Bottom line: First do the discovery and analysis work to clearly define opportunities and outages before jumping into action.”

3. Broaden your view of your audience.


“Many brands assume sustainability matters exclusively to younger consumers. And while it might be one way to resonate with them, understanding the contextual subconscious motivations that drive choices is key to unlocking resonance with a broader audience—agnostic of demographic attributes. Our job is to find and tell those stories that compel new behaviors to spring forth from pre-established notions.”

“It might surprise some, but TikTok is actually where some of the sustainability experts are. It’s given the younger generation direct access to people who work in these fields and are moving the needle. So, consumers are getting information straight from the source and it’s influencing their decisions.”

4. Build your strategy as an equation.


“It’s understandable that brand-builders find sustainability overwhelming. There’s a lot to unpack, and the urgency just keeps intensifying. Our advice to clients is to approach it piece by piece as an equation. Think about your brand’s purpose, then define an impact ambition that’s relevant to that. Evaluate your mission against the realities and limitations of your category and, soon, a path forward starts to emerge.”

5. Transparency above all else.

Matt_Moses 250x250

“Tackling sustainability is a never-ending journey for every brand, so it’s okay to show your stumbles and lessons learned. When we’re helping clients develop sustainability strategies and messaging, it all comes back to transparency and an authentic voice that feels true to your brand. Let consumers know where you are in the process. Admit when you make a wrong turn. Stay open to new ideas, new innovations, new avenues.”

6. Evolve, or be excused.


“There’s no hiding from the sustainability charge anymore. We’re seeing wholesalers pass up CPG brands due to less-than-sustainable packaging. It’s lighting every CPG’s fire to evolve faster and design smarter. New materials, new finishes, new disposal techniques and messaging. And it’s not just about optics with these materials and finishes anymore. You’ve got to walk the walk, or else consumers (and retailers) will call you out.”


“One of the most promising things we’re seeing is brands that have long been set in their ways are finally budging. They’re launching new design strategies to replace plastic and Styrofoam with upcycled materials. They’re thinking ahead to touchless buying experiences and how they can compete there. It’s exciting to see.”

“Message and action have to match. And the policing no longer falls on the consumer’s shoulders. New AI technology is assessing brands’ sustainability claims, parsing corporate messaging from their actual carbon footprint. We tell brands that it’s okay to start small. Commitment and follow-through are most crucial.”

How sustainable is your brand right now?

Find out with our Sustainability Scorecard.
Through brand benchmarking and category assessment, our experts evaluate your brand on various dimensions of sustainability—from action transparency to rate of change—helping you focus your efforts and meaningfully scale them over time.

To get started, reach out right here.


Published On Oct 05, 2021

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