Author's Note: This story was co-written with sustainability consultants Stephen Linaweaver and Brad Bate, whose work and ethos I greatly admire.
Perception vs. reality has always been a major source of tension for brands. And sustainability, once heralded as the next big brand advantage, has only made things worse.
It’s simple, really. If you promise people your soap will make them smell nice and it doesn’t, they’ll get over it. If you falsely promise your soap doesn’t have palm oil from orangutan-displacing plantations, people aren’t nearly as forgiving.
Brands like Patagonia provide shining examples of what can happen when you effectively align perception and reality. Their values, their brand, and their actions all convey the same sustainability message. Using this trifecta to engage more deeply with customers may have contributed to the fact that, during the worst of the recession, their sales continued to climb.
But the Patagonias of the world are few and far between.
This point is illustrated by studies like MapChange and the Sustainability Leadership Report.
They show that many companies are perceived to be much greener than they actually are, while others are not getting credit for good deeds. Neither situation is enviable for a brand manager. But is misalignment always bad?
Is Misalignment Bad...?
The brand landscape is littered with examples of companies for which green perception and reality are misaligned. This misalignment can expose a brand to risk or prevent it from maximizing its return on sustainability investment.
Apple, for example, is perceived as highly green, thanks in part to sleek design and creative marketing. When supply chain assessments identified weaknesses and not-so-sustainable practices, the dissonance of these findings with the company’s reputation made headlines.
Newscorp, on the other hand, has never had much of a green brand. But in reality, the company has been relatively pro-active on taking leadership positions in sustainability. The conference chatter about Newscorp always starts with “I had no idea they were doing that!,” which doesn’t usually equate with positive brand reinforcement.
...Or Is Misalignment Good?
Of course, for every point, there are counterpoints.
Nike, for example, produces some of the most sustainable sneakers in the world. But the company has chosen to underplay its sustainability chops because brand managers felt the green message would conflict with the ‘authentic athletic performance’ brand promise.
That said, Nike is well-recognized for sustainability in the green community. Their CSR reports are impressive, and their Considered Design process inspiring.
You might say that Nike has used the perception/reality gap to its advantage. Mainstream consumers perceive the brand to be about performance. Conscious consumers recognize them for their green innovation. Everyone wins.
To Be Or Not To Be (Green): What Works For Your Brand?
Managing the right balance of sustainability perception/reality for your brand means knowing when to communicate and when to take action. But most importantly, it means first understanding the sustainability issues that matter to the people who matter to you.
What do your customers care about, and how do they perceive your performance?
When GreenOrder helped a well-known international brand dig into these issues, they found 73 discrete customer sustainability expectations that touched on topics ranging from packaging materials to facility energy consumption and varied based on business line and geography.
Mapping perception against actual performance for each of these expectations illuminated important risks and opportunities. Where perception exceeded performance, action was needed to mitigate potential brand risk. And where performance exceeded perception, additional communication represented an opportunity.
Based on assessments of customer perception and company performance, the brand was able to narrow down to the top 10 to 20 areas of opportunity for additional action or communication, adding new levels of granularity and customer insight to their sustainability strategic planning process.
Aligning Green with your Brand: Words To The Wise
Perception vs. reality represents a powerful lens through which brands or sustainability teams can view their strategies.
Be warned, though, that perceptions and expectations can be fickle. They change by geography, time, and even product or service type.
Aligning green perceptions and reality is ongoing work, but taking a conscious approach can help you create a more resilient brand, more loyal customers, and generate more value for your green dollar spent.
Readers: What’s the best green perception strategy for your company? Share your experience on Talkback.