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How businesses use sustainability to build brand equity

Peter ter Weeme, Principal, Junxion Strategy, at the 2013 Power Smart Forum
Peter ter Weeme, Principal, Junxion Strategy, speaking at the Power Smart Forum.

'What's this company about? What is it doing? What does it stand for?'

Last month's Power Smart Forum offered attendees plenty of information about tangible assets including new technologies, incentives, and ways to improve energy efficiency.

But in one panel discussion, the focus was entirely on the intangible: the impact that sustainability can deliver to a company's brand. The message: brands are becoming an increasingly powerful component of a company's value. And sustainability helps maximize it.

Sustainability brand affects reputation of entire company

Lance Saunders, managing director of advertising firm DDB Canada, traced the history of branding, from a mark of ownership (on cattle!) to today's "statement of desire" (promising that a product will make life better.)

However, he cautioned that brands now transcend individual products. While branding was historically focused on product attributes, such as "Does it taste good?," he said people now attach their brand understanding to entire companies.

"That's why branding is really, really important in terms of a discussion of sustainability," said Saunders. "People are asking, 'What's this company all about? What's it doing, what does it stand for?'"

Research has demonstrated this impact, said Peter ter Weeme of Junxion Strategy, citing numbers popularized by Bob Willard of Sustainability Advantage. According to Willard, 95% of average corporate value in 1978 lay in tangible assets and financial capital. But by 2010, 80% of corporate value had shifted to intangibles such as human capital, reputation and goodwill.

In this context, the value of being a good environmental steward with equitable practices is significant.

Green branding without greenwashing

Ter Weeme listed some do's and don'ts of green branding and marketing, including:

  • Show, don't tell: demonstrate solid sustainability practices.
  • Keep messages simple and relevant; avoid vague, unsubstantiated messaging such as "all-natural".
  • Look for synergies between your company's brand and associated causes.
  • Avoid "sacrifice" messaging: focus on how your sustainability efforts align with the values of your consumers, such as safety, performance, symbolism and status.
  • Don't over-emphasize commitments; focus on achievements and outcomes.
  • Don't under-estimate the power of social media and positive word-of-mouth promotion.

UNBC offers case study in developing a green brand

The final speaker offered proof of the power of incorporating sustainability action into a brand. David Claus is the energy manager at the University of Northern BC (UNBC).

"We're a relatively new institution in a crowded marketplace," he said. "So we need to find places we can excel."

UNBC identified that 10 per cent of its students were studying in environmental programs, and that the university holds Canada's highest proportion of environment-related research chairs. From there, the tagline "Canada's Green University" was born, and a campus-wide commitment to supporting the vision through teaching, research, operations, and community engagement.

UNBC's efforts have paid off, with the university earning accolades as one of Canada's Greenest Employers, and recognition as #1 for campus sustainability projects in North America (tied with Harvard University).

Claus said the effort to make sustainability a core element of UNBC's brand had created both challenges and opportunities.

On the one hand, it has provoked internal criticism that the university should be doing even more than it is. On the other hand, some departments have taken up the leadership in making sustainability central to their operations.

The speakers agreed that when it comes to branding, actions speak louder than words, and well-designed, credible sustainability efforts are actions that support a positive reputation.

Quoting the founder of Amazon, Lance Saunders said, "A brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room."

Quality efforts towards sustainability can help make sure those comments help, rather than hurt, the bottom line.