10 Communication Strategies for Sustainable Brands

10 Communication Strategies for Sustainable Brands
April 12, 2023 Omnibus

The corporate brands – the global giants – use huge promotion, PR and advertising budgets to hide external costs they load on society.

On the other side the sustainable, independent, eco-friendly brands pay the premium – they don’t skip the taxes, they source locally, they treat coworkers fair, and don’t use mish-mash of fertilizers and antibiotics to artifically pump up the volume of their brands.

It is an uneven compeition in the so-called free markets. In order to succeed, truly sustainable brands need to be creative and inventive. Especially in ther marketing communication strategy and the ways they communicate their sustainable benefits. I’ve chosen 10 different communication strategies that work for sustainable, independent brands and make them visible in the foggy corporate markets. Make them differentiate. Make them stand out.

But before we proceed, let’s just make a sketch of the competitive landscape – that playfield where sustainable brands face the giants of our times.

— Flawed competition in today’s economy

All that glitters is not gold. The modern, invasive, global corporative Goliaths are often hailed as superbly efficient organizations. Their brands seem to leverage economies of scale, operational efficiency, supply chain management, technological innovation, and you name it to make for cost advantage over the competition.

They seem. In reality, their “low-cost” business models are often based on a long chain of hidden costs.

In other words: they make extra costs for which they don’t have to pay.

But someone has to pay. Today or tomorrow. The “low price” of these invasive giants is ultimately paid by all of us.

CO2, plastic in the oceans, dying forests, bank bailouts, child labor, tax-free global optimizations, and harmful effects on earth and water. The bill comes to all of us. The people on this planet.

Unfortunately that is a staple of our economy. What is called free market is in reality unfair and uneven competition.

Let’s put it straight. Pardon, our French.

The competition in today’s capitalist economy is flawed, unfair and inclined toward corporations who transfer the payment of costs to society.

On the one hand we have corporate brands – often hailed as disruptors – who cold-bloodedly transfer the costs to society.

On the other hand we have independent, craft, eco-friendly brands who pay taxes regularly, source locally, treat coworkers fair, and don’t use environmentally harmful ingredients.

— The deliberate consumer confusion of values

Here we hit the reality of the consumer behaviour. The consumer is often not willing to pay the price premium for sustainable brands. Very often because in the ocean of false claims, she is confused about the real value of the sustainable brand.

The research published in article 5 communications tips to market sustainability by Denise Dahlhoff points at three main consumer barriers:

  1. Too time consuming to research which brands are truly better
  2. I do not trust companies’ environmental claims
  3. I find companies’ environmental claims confusing

Yes, the consumer confusion is unfortunately a powerful communication tool leveraged deliberately by big brands.

— Promotional money used for pumping up the false heroes

Globally hailed CPG heroes – behemoths of the world economy – pump up huge amounts of money into promotional budgets. Trade promotions alone take 20 percent of overall CPG revenue. Add another 20 percent for media advertising, 10% for PR, and sales promotions, and grab yourself as the figures might make you dizzy …

You can see where the streams of money go.

In the quality of the products? No.

In the sustainable features? No.

In the working conditions of the people? No.

More or less money goes into pushy marketing levers that try to blatantly outcry the competition.

All this, furtherly underpinned with hidden product ingredients that hook our neuro-transmitters. Just take a look at our diet: flavoured water, energy drinks, artificially colored meat filled with antibiotics?

The other side of the coin: the environmentally friendly competitors with sustainable, sometimes craft products are upfront unable to compete with the marketing budgets of the sometimes plain “unsustainable”, “dirty”, and “misleading” competitors.

— How can sustainable brands (Davids) compete against massively invasive Goliaths

That’s why it’s even more important that alternatives – especially the ones that respect the environment and nature – grow well, grow steadily, or at least stay alive.

And the competitive fight against the such unsustainable, misleading, invasive, environmentally harmful, large-scale competition, which thrives by hiding the true costs, is anything but easy.

Contrary to giants who hide their costs, the sustainable, independent, eco-friendly brands pay the premium – they don’t skip the taxes, they source locally, they treat coworkers fair, and don’t use mish-mash of fertilizers and antibiotics to artifically pump up the volume of their brands.

Unequal struggle. So we need some powerful cultural models to get us through. Mythological David can be held up as such a carrier of a light. The epitome of a resourceful individual fighting against the big machine. He did not shy away from a seemingly lost battle. Instead, he believed in himself. He discovered the weak point of the giant Goliath, then he aimed and shot convincingly with the slingshot.

— 10 marketing communication strategies for sustainable brands

So how can sustainable, often locally sourced, Davids get through the sea of noise and communicate their sustainable features?

Before we even start let’s notice the fact: the first obstacle might come from an unexpected place. It is the very reticence of the producers of environmentally friendly products. They rely on good product qualities to just leapfrog themselves to the customers. But the door to customers must be opened first! Customers need to at least know about the existence of sustainable alternatives.

Below you can find 10 communication strategies taken from real-life heroes of communication. The ones that show us the unconventional path the sustainable Davids should take.

1. Introduce the product maturation process.

Good products with natural ingredients take longer to mature, while cheap products are often full of shortcuts, steroidally accelerated with various additives.

Just think of tomatoes.

How many days need a natural tomato to ripen under the volatile skies?

And how many days does a synthetic, global, supermarket tomato ripen when chemicals are flowing in the “fruit” from the barrels? (Believe me, I’ve seen it with my own eyes – in Almeria, where tomatoes for European supermarkets are grown; not nice at all).

Photos of slowly ripening fruit on social media may already be a harbinger! That is why, for example, brewers can refer to the duration, the ripening time. 90 days of fermentation.

Any organic product can communicate this. What would it mean to add information on the length of maturation to organic products? Just compare tomatoes grown on the Earth with all those synthetic substitutes.

2. “What is not in the product?”

Labels in most products say what is in the product.

Sustainable products can twist the approach. They can show us what “standard” ingredients commonly used by big brands are not there: e.g. gluten, pesticides, dyes, preservatives, refined sugar, etc. Mark the “not theres” with icons on the website to make a difference from misleading competitors.

3. An unusual piece of evidence that cannot be forgotten.

A few seasons ago on a local tv franchise show Startup Slovenia, we had a big marketing moment. The founder of the natural cosmetics brand Nelipot ate a skin cream in front of the cameras. You almost can’t do any more powerful than that. Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to eat your non-food product – but you can make sure the presentation has a memorable, surprising effect.

If not, seek certification issued by the trustworthy organizations.

4. Humanize.

In the age of machines and algorithms, human touches are precious. Especially if they are based on a relationship with products. For example, if you handpick content for your customers or personally read every message, this is valuable – you can tell this at different customer touchpoints.

So: don’t hide rather emphasize the touches of human hands.

Also provide human stories behind the products. Who are the workers, who are the real farmers struggling and living with and respecting the natural forces.

5. Humor.

Everbowl, a craft manufacturer of superfood bowls, tells customers in a story that their products are healthy because the owner is a hypochonder. Of course, humor needs to find the right frequency, even somehow find a connection to the very DNA of the organization, but the buyers of eco-friendly products are not “standardized” and average here either, they value authentic experience, and humor is part of that.

6. Building community.

Dirty products are often only attractive because of the price, but almost no one automatically shares their enthusiasm for them. Products with a human handprint and respect for the environment often come from the very philosophy of their pioneers. The niches in which these products appear are often linked to hobbies. Cooking is the most famous example, but almost every niche has a group of people who want to connect and discuss what they like to do.

7. CO2 footprint.

The label already indicates a smaller environmental footprint locally. Three-quarters of buyers consider this information important. Of course, then price can still prevail, but: if your locally produced product is competing with a global product that is transported from warehouse to warehouse around the world, you can communicate it.

8. Giving back to the environment.

Some brands, such as Burt’s Bees with the slogan “From Nature. For Nature. For All!” is one of the most trusted brands in the eyes of buyers of sustainable products. One of their campaigns is remarkable: they bought 35,000 hectares of wilderness in Maine with a portion of the profits and then donated the land to a national park.

9. Straight comparison with a widely used but environmentally problematic product.

Oatly, the oat milk producer, loudly proclaims: “Swapping cow’s milk for oat milk reduces emissions by 73%.”

10. A sharp, clear, painful message that raises awareness.

Sustainable products can aim for a major transformation in their field from the outset. Tony’s Chocolonely, which is also available in Slovenia, is based on the figure: “More than 1.5 million child workers are involved in cocoa production”. They have been changing this from the very beginning.

So these were 10 suggestions that can help you sharpen your communication slingshot and expose misleading goliaths with persuasive messages.

Of course, these messages are most powerful when set in the right communication channels and integrated with other elements, such as brand DNA, into a sustainable product strategy.

If you want to find ways to communicate your products in a powerful way that is sustainable and respectful of the environment, either on your own or with your team, don’t overlook the Switchboard Omnibus product.

Through a sequence of steps, it playfully takes you from a multitude of ideas to a direct guide with the most compelling messages for product designers.

Either way – let the above be an incentive to shoot out compelling, but of course environmentally respectful, messages that open doors to customers and expose the empty, misleading promises of the Goliath.

If you think you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share it. But if you have your own experience – positive, negative, whatever – I and others would be delighted if you shared it!


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