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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

What’s in a brand and does it matter?

That’s the million-dollar question Forbes set out to answer in a recent study to understand consumer’s impressions of 100 top corporate brands in the US.  Showing how important sustainability and CSR is in the business world today, Forbes asked consumers to rank brands based on 12 attributes including “is honest and trustworthy”, “has ethical leadership”, “leverages business success and expertise to make a positive contribution to society” and “upholds transparent communication practices”.

Unsurprisingly, the study showed that effectively communicating sustainability really does matter.  This isn’t a surprise to us here at Sustainability Consult.  Our recent IABC Workshop on Communicating Sustainability brought in professional communicators from a wide range of industries all wanting to learn more about this field.

In the Forbes survey, consumer goods company Johnson & Johnson topped the list followed by food companies Kraft, General Mills and Hershey.  Going beyond big budget marketing campaigns, food and consumer goods companies have made a concerted effort in recent years to communicate better with consumers on their charitable giving, sustainability efforts, environmental cleanups and transparent business practices.  The study suggests that these communications efforts are paying off. 

Despite their strong brand equity, companies like Nike, Dell, and Starbucks landed in the middle of the pack.  All three companies have strong CSR and sustainability platforms, but perhaps aren’t effectively communicating the positive changes they’re making.

BP, to no-one’s surprise, was at the bottom of the list.  The company heralded a new era of sustainability with its Beyond Petroleum campaign in the early 2000s, a campaign which came under fire at the time for greenwashing.  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and subsequent PR fiasco was the nail in the company’s coffin as far as consumers are concerned. 

That said, we are certain that BP will be drawing lessons learned from the episode and working hard to rebuild trust in the brand.  As we said in the IABC Communicating Sustainability Workshop, if BP had just said “We screwed up, we’re sorry.  We are doing everything we can to put this right,” their sustainability brand credentials would have been faring slightly better today.

Successful brands that resonate with consumers and ultimately push products are expensive to create.  As the Forbes study illustrates, sustainability is an essential investment in building brand equity.  Effectively communicating these benefits is a central pillar to building a durable brand.  At Sustainability Consult, we believe sustainability makes business sense.

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