Kurt Stuhllemmer of Hall & Partners: will your brand be convicted of greenwashing?

Innocent Drinks recently joined Oatly (both below) and a growing list of other leading brands, such as H&M, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, VW and BP as the ASA and competition watchdog CMA crack down on greenwashing.

New legislation aims to protect consumers from disingenuous advertising and communication campaigns, following investigations last year which discovered that 40% of green claims made online could be misleading.

Our consumer research tells us that there are huge expectations on brands to become more responsible and responsive. Brands need to take a stand on the important issues impacting the world today, which is exactly what Innocent was trying to do. It’s not just the industry watchdogs that take offence; consumers will not tolerate actions by businesses that are perceived to be jumping on the greenwashing bandwagon.

Brands are now expected to be sustainable in some form or other, or at least making genuine efforts to be so. To describe yourself as a sustainable brand is no longer a mark of distinction, it’s viewed as a given and consumers demand it.

For example, Hall & Partners’ Value Shift report reveals that 75% of younger consumers (18–34-year-olds) think businesses should take greater responsibility and do more to create a better and fairer world for everyone, while over half of all consumers (57%) believe brands need to do more to positively impact society. Ranked as the number one value for all generations (69%), protecting the environment and working together towards a more sustainable future was the top priority.

The bigger picture

The challenge facing business and brands today is how to effectively communicate their green credentials in a way that is perceived by consumers to be genuine and authentic. Sustainability plays an important part of this but it’s not the panacea to becoming purposeful. The difficulty is that the term sustainability can often mean different things to different people. It’s a complicated and far-reaching concept for brands to align themselves with, and one that most people tend to associate with environmental issues.

Businesses are desperate to portray themselves in a more positive light as they seek to tap into a growing shift in consumer values. Our inaugural Conscious Brand 100 Index revealed that brands that are perceived as being eco-friendly, sustainable and genuinely conscientious are more likely to deliver stronger business performance and be considered by consumers.

Value shift

Business and brands are now having to think twice before describing themselves as planet or eco-friendly. These are broad terms and it can be hard to get the messaging right, particularly when consumer attitudes and values are shifting.

Last month, new consumer research found that 77% of UK consumers simply don’t understand what brands mean when they talk about sustainability. Furthermore, when asked about how genuine they thought brands were, 81% said they didn’t trust them when talking about sustainability and environmental goals, while only 4% said they ‘completely trusted them’.

As consumers place greater emphasis on values such as social equality, authentic activism, diversity and inclusivity, we need to look at the bigger picture; one that shows how brands are becoming increasingly aware of their wider environment, while meeting consumer needs.

Providing the right research tools for businesses to thoroughly test and measure their creative campaigns will help ensure they deliver the right message, to the right people at the right time. Brands need to work out their distinctive product or service offering in a way that allows it to be perceived by consumers as being authentic, rather than exaggerated or misleading.

Such research should be carried out through a multi-dimensional conscious lens that doesn’t rely on singular measures, such as sustainability goals, but instead encompasses a greater far-reaching view of how brands need to operate in the modern world – both on a personal and planetary level.

Having a clear brand strategy that combines specific sustainability goals with insights obtained from wider research will help keep brands on track. Advertising campaigns must be measurable, consistent and most importantly, align with true brand values to ensure they are perceived as being real. If not, you might start to see the reputation of more brands come out in the (green)wash in the not-too-distant future.

Kurt Stuhllemmer is a partner at Hall & Partners.

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