How responsible should brands be in driving sustainability and changing consumer behaviour?

At a recent roundtable hosted by Ketchum Pleon London, industry experts Adam Elman, Head of Delivery Plan A, Marks & Spencer; Dr Sally Uren, Deputy Chief Executive, Forum for the Future; David Metcalfe, CEO, Verdantix; Mark Hopkinson, Head of New Business UNICEF UK as well as Meg Morgan, the sustainability lead, for Ketchum Pleon London debated the role and responsibility that brands have in driving consumer behaviour change when it comes to sustainability.

Despite a lively discussion, there was general consensus that there remains confusion over the role brands and consumers play to drive consumer change.  Regardless, it was clear that brands have ambition to become more “transformational” instead of “transactional” by selling “something of social value”.  To deliver this brands still face a major challenge getting the sustainability agenda in the hands of their marketeers.  Although consumers are becoming increasingly savvy about the issues, it was agreed they need to become engaged and empowered by helping brands develop their position through techniques such as crowdsourcing.

Below are the key takeouts from the discussion:

  • Sustainability is becoming a strengthening asset for brands in managing reputation across consumer and stakeholder audiences
  • Brands have the power and reach to understand consumer interests and motivations.  Those that take the risk to address these consumer interests will reap the benefits
  • Marketeers need to stop thinking about green marketing and “kill the idea about eco products” if consumers are going to take responsibility for sustainable behaviour
  • Companies need to gain trust on ‘green’ issues by being more transparent in the way they engage and communicate to their consumers and stakeholder audiences
  • Brands need to become “transformational” instead of “transactional” by selling “something of social value”
  • The best way of engaging consumers in behaviour change is to understand their personal motivations and engage them in the issue from the outset
  • Consumers need to know that their sustainable behaviour (no matter how small) is making a difference – there is absolutely a role for brands to help people understand this
  • Communicators have yet to crack how best to measure investment in sustainability bearing in mind that “not all sustainable work can be monetised”

There is clearly still a long way to go before sustainability is part of a standard product proposition – everyone at the roundtable agreed here. However, there is an increasing opportunity for brands to become leaders in their markets by owning the ‘responsible’ space simply by listening and engaging their audiences (something that very few brands truly do now) and developing innovative solutions based on what they hear. The brands that do well and build credibility will be those that allow the audience to ‘own’ and direct them. For some, this may be an unnerving prospect but most will find it a brand enhancing exercise that will ultimately benefit the bottom line.