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Brands are going green – in almost all markets and industries. At the same time, brand builders have to ask themselves many questions: What is our purpose? How can I avoid greenwashing? How can I use sustainability to raise the profile of my brand? – The last question is the most important from the perspective of strategic brand management. Here is an attempt at an answer.

By Katharina Kunze

© Deutscher Markenmonitor

A Sustainability Pioneer as a Benchmark

One company that recognised sustainability as significant early on is Vaude. Based on a clear conviction, Vaude was one of the first to anchor sustainability in its corporate strategy. And consistently implements sustainability in processes and products. Even more: For years, Vaude has consistently made sustainability tangible in all brand dimensions – in the product range, in communication, in design and in behaviour. Vaude is (until) today the German brand that “owns” the topic of sustainability in its industry.

Successful brands focus on one or two so-called “superiority claims”, i.e. an aspect for which they stand as the only brand in their industry. A topic in which they are better than the competition and on which they direct their communicative focus. Because only in this way can a brand really differentiate itself from competitors, present itself uniquely, “own” a topic alone. Vaude has succeeded in this in the outdoor clothing segment.

© Vaude

What can Brands do for which Sustainability cannot be a USP?

Sustainability is relevant for all companies today – but not all brands can “own” the topic and use it as a unique selling proposition. So how can these brands integrate sustainability into their brand management in a meaningful way? The approach must be to not drag sustainability along as a mere “hygiene factor” in brand management – i.e. as an aspect or claim that the competition fulfils in a similar way. Instead, the topic of sustainability also offers brands an opportunity: it can become an inspiring aspect for brand management – if it is interpreted in a way that is typical for the brand.

Lego’s “Building Instructions for a Better World”

One example: Lego has a clear brand core with “Builders of Tomorrow” and two strong claims of superiority: inspiration and creativity. In 2021, Lego succeeded in creatively interpreting sustainability in a brand-typical way, with a “building instruction for a better world”. Lego asked children from all over the world: “What three instructions would you give world leaders to protect our planet from climate change?” This resulted in ten calls, summarised in a Lego-typical building instruction that shows governments and companies how the climate crisis can be tackled from the young people’s point of view. A creative idea and implementation that generated a lot of positive response. In parallel, Lego is also trying to create sustainable facts: with sustainable packaging, with accessories made of bio-polyethylene (bio-PE), with research into recycled materials for the Lego bricks. In September 2023, however, Lego had to report a setback. For two years, they had conducted tests with recycled plastic bottles. But now found that carbon emissions could not be reduced with this material, Lego said. Tests with other materials are continuing.

© Lego

Questions that Brand Builders have to ask themselves

Brand builders must clarify these three cornerstones if they want to bring brand and sustainability together:

  1. Clarify the strategic framework: How can we integrate sustainability into the brand strategy in a considered way? If a (new) sustainable offer does not fit into the existing brand strategy, it may make sense to establish a new brand for it.
  2. Out of the sea of sameness: How can we anchor sustainability typically in the brand core?
  3. Credible implementation: How can we credibly make the difference with sustainability initiatives from product to communication?

New Legal Framework Conditions

The European Union wants to ban marketing communications that misleadingly promote products as environmentally friendly. This means: terms such as “environmentally friendly”, “biodegradable”, “climate neutral” or “eco” may only be used if they are demonstrably true. And with the new planned law, only sustainability labels introduced on government initiative or based on official certification systems will be allowed. If the vote on this takes place as planned in November 2023, the member states will have two years to make national laws out of it.

Status Quo: What Brand Decision-Makers Say

The decision-maker study German Brand Monitor surveyed brand experts on the topic of brand and sustainability. The result: Almost 71% of the companies surveyed have explicitly anchored sustainability in their brand strategy – but only 13% of the companies have guidelines for action in the area of sustainability in their brand strategy. This means that there are implementation challenges that most companies still have to solve.

Further exciting results on relevant trends and challenges in brand management can be found in the study German Brand Monitor, which you can download here.

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