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The 5C’s of Sustainability Branding, Revisited

By Marc Stoiber

In 2010, my team wrote a piece called the 5C’s of Sustainability Branding, based on a green brand reality / perception study we created.

I thought it might prove useful to revisit the 5C’s in order to see how sustainability branding has evolved. I, for one, have observed several shifts in the way brands are talking about (or not talking about) their sustainability achievements.

So here you are. The original 5C’s, followed by my 2012 new C’s.

The original 5C’s

  1. Consumer-Facing - Not sure what to do first? Look at what the consumer is looking at. There are plenty of ways to improve corporate sustainability, but consumer-facing changes will have the most immediate impact on your brand’s public perception. Think of Method’s Omop, with its compostable/recyclable bamboo and paper packaging – it stands out like a beacon on the shelf where consumers can really notice the difference.

  2. Competitive - To compete, brands must innovate. And in the 21st century, the best innovations will have strong sustainability credentials. Concepts like GE’s Ecomagination are just the thin edge of the wedge. With price and quality being equal, the competitive advantage will go to brands that differentiate themselves with sustainability features.

  3. Core – Tying sustainability to a brand’s core business is another way to ensure it resonates with consumers. If your brand sells hamburgers, effective brand sustainability strategy would focus on hamburgers (organic beef or recycled wrappers, for example). Car brands must focus on making more fuel-efficient, cleaner cars – not saving the rainforest. If you do something that is unrelated to your core business, you risk alienating or confusing your consumers, at best – and having them holler ‘greenwash,’ at worst. Brands like Clorox Greenworks hit this one on the mark.

  4. Conversational Sustainability branding is more effective as a two-way conversation, rather than a one-way announcement. Honesty and transparency go a long way with consumers. Disclosing what you’re doing well, and what you could be doing better, will instill trust…and trust breeds loyalty. Inviting consumers to participate in a conversation about your process will further strengthen the brand-consumer relationship. Think of Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles – an online tool that helps consumers understand Patagonia’s strides in making their shirts and pants more sustainably…and see the environmental shortcomings of Patagonia’s products as well.

  5. Credible - Sustainability strengthens brands. But greenwashing, even if unintended, can do a brand serious harm. The good news is that this is avoidable. The key is in sequence. As long as your sustainability efforts are in place, functioning and measurable before being announced, they will be viewed as credible. And proven, objective credibility – when paired with innovation that excites and communication that clarifies and engages – is the key to sustainable brand success.

New C’s for 2012

  1. Collaborative – The London Olympics were a symbol of the new coming-together of sustainable brands. Not only did it provide a fantastic showcase that took green from being fringe to matter-of-fact, but it also allowed green suppliers of all stripes to share notes and strike partnerships. More and more, brands with sustainability credentials are banding together to create standards, increase buying strength and encourage consumer confidence.

  2. Certified – Sure, there were certification programs in 2010. But today, more companies are going further, forming creative partnerships with NGOs. So instead of merely getting a certification label, you’re getting a partnership that can spur innovation.

  3. Quiet – OK, it isn’t a C. But it sounds like one. And it’s one of the most striking features of green brands I’m seeing today. To wit: companies are treating sustainability as the right thing to do across operations, supply chain and governance, not a remarkable (and often short-lived) product feature. So we’re seeing more sustainability built in, and less sustainability talk. This may also be symptomatic of the increased vigilance brands are experiencing from citizen journalists armed with thousands of Twitter followers.

Your sustainability branding C’s?

The moment I publish this piece, I imagine 5 better C’s will pop into my head. I hope reading it will inspire you to give me your best C’s (or A’s, or B’s, you get the drift). Give me a better list, and I’ll make sure to credit you when I publish the next C list.

 is a creative director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist. He consults with clients across North America. He also speaks and blogs extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of today's brands.

image: Chris via Flickr cc (some rights reserved)

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