Kurt Stuhllemmer, Partner, Hall & Partners
UK industry watchdogs such as theCompetition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have begun to reinforce new legislation aimed at protecting consumers, as they crackdown on businesses and brands making misleading claims about their environmental and sustainable credentials.
The problem for brands arises when they try to align themselves with values that misrepresent or overplay their core business in some way. Communication campaigns that are created in response to wider industry issues that lack authenticity and consistent messaging over time could easily face accusations of greenwashing.
The extent of the problem is cause for concern. In early 2021, the CMA discovered that 40% of green claims made online could be misleading – suggesting that thousands of businesses could be breaking the law and potentially damaging their brand.
Under the spotlight
Coca-Cola’s Innocent Drinks joins a growing list of brands accused of greenwashing, as the ASA recently banned a campaignencouraging consumers to “get fixing up the planet” by choosing to buy its products. The ad implied that purchasing Innocent’s drinks would have a positive impact on the planet. However, it was deemed as ‘misleading’ because the extraction and processing of raw materials to create the bottles “did not demonstrate that their products had a net positive environmental impact over their full lifecycles.”
Swedish oat drink company Oatly, famous for its off-beat, unconventional advertising campaigns, and values that claim to put the planet before profit, also managed to get it wrong. Oatly’s ban on its high-profile marketing campaign was upheld by the ASA as misleading, citing a lack of evidence that only focussed on one of its products (Oatly Barista Edition).
These food and drink brands may soon be joined by many others from sectors includingbeauty, transport and fashion as their communication campaigns come under closer scrutiny from industry watchdogs. Many could face legal action if advertising campaigns are consideredto be false, exaggerated or misleading.
Research reveals a shift in consumer values
Brands are keen to portray themselves in a more positive light as they seek to tap into a growing shift in consumer values, unlock new revenue and report on how they are measuring, managing and improving their impact on the planet.
New consumer research from Hall & Partners highlights this shift in values, revealing that 77% of UK consumers simply don’t understand what brands mean when they talk about sustainability. When asked about how genuine they thought brands were, 81% of consumers said they didn’t trust them when talking about sustainability and environmental goals, while only 4% said they ‘completely trusted them’.
Brands are now expected to be sustainable in some form or other, or at least seen to be making genuine efforts to be so. To describe yourself as a sustainable brand is no longer a mark of distinction, it’s viewed as a given and consumers demand it. In fact, our consumer research also showed that brands risk losing almost half (48%) of their customers if their products or services aren’t perceived as being sustainable.
Further extensive research from Hall and Partners’ Value Shift report reveals that 75% of younger consumers (18–34-year-olds) think businesses should take greater responsibility and do more to create a better and fairer world for everyone, while over half of all consumers (57%) believe brands need to do more to positively impact society. Ranked as the number one value for all generations (69%), protecting the environment and working together towards a more sustainable future was the top priority.
The bigger picture
As consumers place greater emphasis on values such as social equality, authentic activism, diversity and inclusivity, a more comprehensive method to measure brands is required; one that measures across multiple dimensions, including, but not, exclusively their environmental impact. Sustainability is of course important, but we need to look at the bigger picture; one that shows how brands are becoming increasingly aware of their wider environment, while meeting consumer needs. We need brands to become more conscious; something that can be achieved with greater consumer research and customer insights.
Businesses aiming to build effective brand strategies require communication campaigns to be thoroughly tested to ensure they deliver the right message, to the right people at the right time. This allows brands to work out their distinctive product or service offering in a way that is perceived by consumers to be authentic, rather than exaggerated or misleading. Without careful initial research, it’s easy for brands to lose their way and be found guilty of greenwashing.
A clear brand strategy combining specific sustainability goals with insights obtained from wider consumer research that addresses people’s needs, moods and culture, will help deliver an effective communications campaign.