Avoiding the pitfalls of ESG strategy

We’re fortunate to have a diverse client base at Incite – each week we’re presented with a wide set of briefs spanning a multitude of categories and challenges. But every now and then, we spot trends emerging in those client questions – and none have been clearer in recent times than the topic of sustainability.

From fashion to food, banking to oil, hospitality to sport, one issue is on everyone’s mind: how to navigate a path through this tricky, green terrain. The pressure is on to meet consumer expectations in the face of growing cynicism, with an approach that leaves no room for collateral damage.

Big brands have been getting this stuff wrong for many years with seemingly little consequence – remember Nike’s failed product launch of ‘Air Hobbits’? Or Philips Earthlight anti-consumer mishaps? But times have changed, and a looming climate catastrophe is now driving the agenda. Unfavourable initiatives that would once have resulted in a bruised ego could now present existential threat for a business of any shape or size.

Whilst we’d never claim to have all the answers, our extensive work in this space means that we’ve learnt a thing or two about how to get this stuff right – and more still about how to get it wrong. With that in mind, here are three guiding principles that might just help you on your own sustainability journey…

1 / No tolerance for trade-offs

Consumers have long assumed sustainable choices demand some element of compromise – less choice, higher price points and poor(er) user experiences. But everything we’re hearing from the coalface suggests this is swiftly changing; we’ve noticed a significantly lower tolerance for sacrifice but no change in expectation.

Across categories, consumers are particularly intolerant of products, services and processes that create inconvenience. If they must work harder, travel further, or put more thought into decision-making to make sustainable choices, then they’ll simply switch off – and that could mean walking directly into the arms of a competitor.

2 / Sustainability as a hygiene factor

Consumers expect brands to actively facilitate greener choices, allowing them to behave sustainably as a by-product of using a business’s products or services. This is increasingly seen as a standard hygiene factor rather than a nice-to-have. And that means that brands must be democratic in the way they facilitate their customers’ sustainability journey.

A common pitfall is to present sustainable options as a form of reward; something to be unlocked by the payment of a product fee, or a meeting of certain eligibility criteria. This typically results in a vocal response from consumers and can significantly undermine long-held, positive brand perceptions.

3 / Positivity affirms action

Brands could be forgiven for believing that one way to trigger interest in sustainable products is to hold up a mirror to consumers’ current sustainability behaviour (or lack thereof). After all, we know much of the population have an ingrained, fixed view of what acting sustainably means – so to prompt action we should highlight the failings of their current approach, right? Wrong.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator, but often it has a corrosive effect – cementing inaction and leaving negative emotional baggage in its wake. Ultimately, consumers don’t want to be reminded of their shortcomings. Brands who offer to monitor behaviours, flag sub-optimal decision making or prescribe a ‘better’ way will likely be met with disdain. Instead, consider creating a positive feedback loop – using carrots, not sticks, to activate progressive behaviours.

It’s clear: the days of greenwashing are disappearing fast. To make the climate work for your brand, you need to make your brand work for the climate. If you’re grappling with the customer opportunities and challenges in this space do get in touch – we would love to hear from you.