The 5 C’s of Sustainability

If you have ever taken (or suffered through) a marketing class, you will remember that the course curriculum sometimes sounded like that game, Battleship. The 4 P’s. The 7 C’s.–or were there 4? The Five Forces—wait, that’s strategy. And of course, the endless Z’s, though in fairness, that depends on how dynamic your professor was.

But seriously, as consumers become more aware of company’s activities on environmental, social, and governance issues, they are holding these firms accountable to their word. And as more companies become convinced that sustainability is integral, just not one part, of its marketing and branding strategies, a shift in focus is necessary from just a discussion on product, pricing, promotion, and place. No, we are not talking about the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle).

According to the innovation consultancy Maddock Douglas’s team of Marc Stoiber, G. Michael Maddock, and Raphael Louis Viton, the formulation of a sustainable brand will require 5 C’s:

  • Competition: Companies have to innovate in order to continue their success, and at a time where everything is commoditized, sustainability can differentiate one product from another. As consumers become more conscious about how their choices can affect people and the planet, the assumption that consumers will simply pay more for a “green” product will soon be no longer true. Rather than paying a premium, they will expect a more sustainable option at the same price. Ford, for example, has announced the same pricing for one of its cars that has two options: both the model with the internal combusible engine and other with a hybrid drivetrain will have the same price tag.

  • Consumer Facing: What are consumers looking for? If consumers want a higher percentage of recycled materials in your product’s packaging, create it. Should they clamor for carbon offsetting, offer it. If they want something harmful like BPA or phosphates eliminated, get rid of them.

  • Core Business. Stick to environmental, social, and governance issues that are relavant to your company’s product offering. Coffee aficionados want to know that their coffee is fairly traded and without pesticides, so offering college scholarships is a mere distraction. Should customers of your baked goods company want assurance you are not using GMO-derived grains, do not talk about saving dolphins. These are extreme examples, but you get the point. JetBlue is one example of how their messaging went awry—on one of its Facebook pages, the airline talked about recycling and planting flowers—much of its top 10 on going green sounded as if it were poached from elsewhere.
  • Conversations: In the age of social media, you have to have an open conversation with your customers: the day of creating a pretty report and uploading it to your web site with the option to download it into PDF are over. Patagonia and Timberland are two companies that understand what it means to engage customers and stakeholders.
  • Credibility: Get your sustainability efforts underway before you start announcing them. Many consumers are already cynical—announcing that your products are “green” or “sustainable” before they are verified will just put your company in a hole. BP is a great example—the company spent a decade and millions of dollars rebranding itself. We all know how that fared.

The reality companies have to face is that only going after the stereotypical “green” consumer is a wash (or greenwash?) That market segment, made of consumers who are always willing to pay a premium for a green product, is too small of a slice to go after. More consumers want products that are innovative and sustainable; more and retailers and distributors are willing to offer them. Method Home products is one example of how performance can be paired with a mindfulness towards the environment and to people.

Perhaps there are three E’s: educate, excite, and engage. There will always be debate over what is green and what is sustainable. Pair that with social media has joined the Internet and “old media” as a forum for marketing communication, getting that message about your company’s product line out now is more of a challenge—but the opportunties are exciting.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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