Brand substance: Study reveals sustainability marketing mismatch

Practising sustainability does not translate into business success unless properly marketed, according to a new study from brand-engagement agency Given London and Ashridge Business School.

The organisations interviewed sustainability and marketing experts, asking them to rank the UK’s top companies on ‘brand substance’, i.e their positive impact on the world.

The study revealed that being a ‘good citizen’ in the eyes of sustainability experts does not necessarily add up to an ethical brand reputation in the eyes of marketers.


B&Q – which won three of edie’s Sustainability Leaders Awards – was ranked 16th by sustainability experts but only 38th by marketers, for example.

“Throughout the study, we noticed that marketers consistently weren’t as impressed with brands that scored very highly with sustainability experts,” said David Hawksworth, executive creative director at Given London.

“This tends to suggest that for companies like Puma and Patagonia, having substance to your brand is only part of the story – what they need to do more clearly is define and outline the positive impact actions are having.”

Underated by marketers


Tech bubble

Conversely, tech companies scored much more highly on brand substance with marketers. YouTube, for example, was ranked 18th by marketers but 47th by sustainability experts.

One reason for this, according to the report, is that a “positive brand halo exists around companies known for ‘world-changing’ ideas, with this rightly or wrongly becoming synonymous with ‘game-changing’ impact”.

However this perception gap could actually be a negative for tech firms as they risk a backlash when consumers find out more about their impact. “Today’s brand heroes could easily find themselves as tomorrow’s brand villains,” said the report.

Overrated by marketers


Respondents to the report included Ikea UK’s head of sustainability Joanna Yarrow, Coca-Cola Enterprises’ head of CSR Joe Franses and Volmans chairman John Elkington.

The good news for brands that have yet to commit to sustainability is that companies that have adopted green strategies were ranked just as highly as companies that embedded sustainability from the start.

“Historically, the leading ‘baked in’ brands [those that have had sustainability embedded in their business from the offset] like The Body Shop and Innocent have enjoyed an edge over many of their rivals,” said Becky Willan, managing director at Given London. “But successful ‘added ingredient’ adopters [those that heve incorporated sustainability into their organisation] can testify to the positive impact this marketing approach can have on a brand.

“Even once-tarnished brands like Nike can excel from a conscious promotion of brand substance over image.”

Overall rankings: Baked-in vs. Added ingredient

Brad Allen

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