Stephanie is a native New Yorker and the founder of Orchard and Broome, a public relations company that selectively represents ethical or sustainable brands.
Sustainability needs a rebranding.
There’s a stigma around it. The majority of people seem to think that sustainability is either all to do with a hippie-dippie, boho, vegan lifestyle, or there’s an air of being higher than thou, unattainable and inaccessible.
The truth is, sustainable production is hard work, expensive and time-consuming.
Premium and higher-quality fibers, whether or not they hold certifications, are naturally more expensive. And that is on top of paying living wages for workers or specific artisans. Of course, it’s worth paying more for these things. That is the point! But, how do you translate all of this to the mass market in a way that inspires someone to actually make a purchase?
Being “Sustainable” Isn’t Enough
Collectively, if we’re going to move towards a more sustainable future, sustainability needs to be seen as more inclusive and accessible. It’s a matter of branding. But, “rebranding sustainability” as a whole is a lofty goal, and you obviously can’t do it alone.
But, company branding? That’s in the hands of the brands themselves. And that’s how you speak to consumers.
If your brand, at its core, stands behind fair labor and marine conservation, this should absolutely be a part of your messaging. People who care about marine conservation are apart of your target market, and media outlets writing on that topic could be interested in featuring your brand. But that’s a niche topic, and not going to capture the attention of the majority.
Your brand could be achieving 16 out of the 17 UN’s sustainable development goals, but will consumers actually fall in love with a brand simply because it’s nearly fully sustainable? Will people buy a product just because it’s certified by GOTS or Fair Trade?
The research says no. In fact, studies have found that said majority (millennials), claim to care to shop sustainably, but that isn’t what’s reflected in their purchasing patterns.
After years of experience doing branding and media relations work with ethical and sustainable brands, arguably my most valuable advice is this: lead with the consumer benefit, followed by your sustainability efforts.
Consumers accept and support sustainable brands only to the extent of convenience and perception of value. As soon as a product or service is too far out of the norm, inconvenient in the least (aka: requires extra effort), or more expensive than identical products, it’s likely that consumer won’t adopt.
How to Develop Your Brand Message
In developing brand messaging, it’s important to highlight benefits that are familiar to consumers first before trying to convert people based solely on the good it does for society or the environment at large.
Take Shea Brand for example: in messaging around their newly released Hydrosols (distilled leaves, fruits, and flower waters), they lead with the fact that hydrosols are nourishing and refreshing to help balance, calm and restore the skin. They speak to the experience one has when using a hydrosol, because of its incredible scent and feel on the body. And finally, how this product hydrates, tightens and tones pores, reducing swelling and puffiness—all pretty self-interested benefits.
Living within a separate tab on Shea Brand’s site is highly detailed information about Shea’s sourcing and ingredients, certifications and thoughtfully designed, minimal-plastic packaging. For those who are seeking that extensive information, it’s there. But on the front and product pages, Shea Brand makes a strong case for purchasing its products just because they’re beautiful and useful and pampering, whether or not you care about sustainability.
Now, one can argue that beauty or food products are easier to message around sustainability because of their direct effect on our health. It’s harder to say that sustainable textiles—fashion, home linens, and the like—have such a strong effect on our health. There’s a degree of separation. So, if you’re selling bed sheets and bath towels like Under the Canopy or swimsuits like Fair Harbor, lead with the fact that those products are well-designed, premium quality, super soft, durable, breathable, or whatever it may be, because they’re made with GOTS certified organic cotton, which blooms with each wash. Or recycled poly (rPET) and spandex for that stretch you need in a well-made suit. You’re way more likely to get a sale from a general consumer based on those characteristics.
Branding is non-negotiable for new companies. Heck, even not new companies. And it’s not the kind of branding that involves logo and website design or other aesthetics, but words. Messaging. This is how you will define your company so that: a) consumers believe it’s neither a cheap nor overpriced product, but rather something that they can value, b) media will understand the appeal and how best to write about your brand or product, and c) internally, your team knows what you’re all about and how to talk about the company, too.
The end goal is creating loyalty from all sorts of consumers, making sales to grow your business, and reshaping mindsets around sustainability along the way.