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Mitch Ratcliffe


Don’t Let Climate Change Be Your Brand’s Apocalypse 

Transparency and storytelling can make sustainability come to life

The climate crisis will make the next several decades the most consequential in human history; it will restructure markets, and destroy or create brands. There are two questions to consider today, regardless of your progress toward sustainable operations.


First: will your brand even exist at the century’s midpoint? And if so, how will your brand’s story of its transition from depleting the environment to restoring it be remembered? In 1965 – five years before the first Earth Day – the average S&P company could expect to be around for 32 years. In 2020 that  expectancy was down to 21 years. The climate crisis will kill companies faster. The good news is, virtually all the brands in the world face the same journey you do.


Second: have you established a sustainability communications strategy that will give your organization sufficient time to become sustainable before consumers and government turn to others for solutions? Your brand’s sustainability strategy is crucial to its operational survival during the climate era. The choices you make and how you communicate them will be judged by current customers and future generations when they decide who is on the right side of history. Brands, like everyone else in the world, will be held accountable for their impact, as well as how they disclose those impacts.


The climate response starts now 

With 67% of Americans recognizing the increasing incidence of extreme weather, according to Pew Research, brands’ response to the climate crisis is reshaping the competitive landscape. EuroMonitor reports that two-thirds of global consumers made personal efforts to reduce their environmental impact during 2021. In 30 years – probably longer but hopefully sooner – the world will reach net-zero CO2 emissions. A new economy will have evolved based on the ideas of sustainability, inclusivity and accountability for the impact of personal and corporate decisions related to all the stuff — from produce and yoga pants to smartphones and air travel — made and shipped in support of everyday life. How you tell your story to consumers, partners and government will shape demand for your products or services, the cost and profitability of your business, and the policy environment in which you operate.
“Transparency” is the term for the necessary change in brand strategy, and it carries with it many implications. Its meaning is relatively simple: in the information era, people have come of age with total access to information. That means the truth will come out one way or another — an employee will disclose it, a blogger with plenty of time will find it, or it could be wikileaked — and the fundamental change for brand communications follows logically, that you must communicate the good with the bad proactively. Until your competition is perfectly sustainable, the safer path is to acknowledge your company has gaps or flaws in its products or practices it still needs to fix. The brands at greatest risk are those that tend to paint only shiny, positive pictures of themselves when their products carry negative environmental impacts — and most do.

Stories are journeys, so share the right details 

Consumers want transparency, a view into the environmental and social impact of their spending, and if that spending can be restorative — actually improving the damaged world — it is a powerful lever for creating loyalty. This requires every facet of the brand messaging and customer experience to be open to scrutiny. It’s more about disclosure than dissembling, so you must learn to disclose and explain the sustainability trade-offs in your offering, until there are no more. In Bill Gates’ phrase, you’ll optimize, optimize, optimize until you’re entirely on the planet and natural world’s side, where your customers aspire to be. If you hide unpleasant facts, they will be discovered. It is necessary to do the harder work internally, to become comfortable with candor after years of spinning or even denying the problems.  Learning to disclose impacts and risks in context is not about tacking fine print onto your advertising and wordsmithing around the blemishes.
Metaforce has developed a new sustainability marketing advisory service to advise  clients as they consider the challenges of incorporating a sustainability program into their strategy. Some clients may be wrestling with a recent “sustainability crisis” that put the business under scrutiny for past practices due to a product recall,  a plant fined for pollution, or a failing grade by an environmental activist group. Other clients may be confronting a mandatory shift towards sustainability as they consider how to make the transition to a more sustainable bill of materials because of a ban on plastic packaging, or because a competitor was called out for some deficiency in its practices. Others are undergoing a massive reworking of their  corporate culture – becoming employee owned, contributing one percent of profits to a sustainable cause, matching customer purchases with the planting of trees or giving socks to the homeless – and in general bringing sustainability into the core of the brand DNA to better fit a generation of consumers who prioritize sustainability and corporate social responsibility above price or convenience.

More than a pillar, sustainability is the new foundation

Sustainability is the new filter through which every product, service, decision and message must pass, not just a new story that can be told once, the box checked and forgotten. Metaforce can help you build sustainability into every facet of your organization as a foundational  pillar of the brand, a year-round expression and not just an Earth Day theme. There are benefits and risks.
Your share value can rise. Public companies  with good environmental, social and governance characteristics attracted $120 billion in new funding during 2021, twice that of 2020 according to Bloomberg. Gallup reported in February 2022 that 48% of investors are very interested in making ESG investments and another 25% are aware of the concept. 
Litigation awaits brands with poor alignment of ESG promises with actual performance. The incidence of ESG-related lawsuits is poised to rise, Bloomberg reports, when companies do not follow-through on promises made in filings or offering documents for green bonds. The Federal Trade Commission’s monitoring of advertising and marketing claims will also become more intense as sustainability comes to the fore. Every marketer needs to become intimate with the FTC Green Guides to avoid scrutiny from misstatements in environmental and social impact claims in product information, thought leadership articles, advertising and promotions.
You can win market share. The transition from traditional fossil fuel-based products to green alternatives does not mean a decline in overall spending but a profound shift in consumer spending between sectors and geographies, from unsustainable brands to their green competition. It is still early days and consumer preferences are up for grabs. EPAM reports that only 13% of consumers reported spending more for environmentally responsible products in 2021 (and 14% do so for better social responsibility). Evidence is emerging in niche areas  such as packaging that consumers are ready to pay for sustainable options; only 26% of global consumers would not pay a premium for environmentally responsible packaging, while 49% are willing to spend between 25 cents and $1.00 more per packaged product. 
Poor transparency and inaccurate product information can cost a brand its reputation. Today’s consumers are more sophisticated in their scrutiny of products and look for disclosure of full lifecycle environmental and social impacts for products and services. They also hone in on many new details, such as water use, labor sources, mineral extraction, recycled content and other factors when shopping. Missteps in this area may cost you a sale or  result in a diminished reputation in the consumer’s eyes.
Go with a guide

The Metaforce team can help guide your organization from only spinning positive stories and concealing flaws to telling a courageously honest story about the challenges of being sustainable, equitable and diverse in redesigning a brand y to contribute to building a  prosperous future for all. That is the message your customers and partners are pursuing in their choices. 
With decades of expertise in brand communications, business journalism and sustainability marketing, Metaforce is ready to assess your brand’s sustainability messaging and provide guidance quickly and clearly, whether for a single campaign or as a comprehensive review to develop a strategy. We’ll provide assessments of your message, including identifying risks and improvements, help you by role-playing consumer, press and competitor responses, and provide your team with an engaging, educational briefing to help apply the learning. Learn more


The end of the beginning 

Why act now? Because humanity is on the clock as this week’s United Nations IPCC report on the pace and severity of climate change makes clear. We have only decades to avert catastrophic environmental damage caused by an economy built primarily on fossil fuels. While we have the insights to continue shifting to new sources of energy, the stories that each company and every product tell about their progress toward post-carbon operations will determine the winners and losers in the transition to sustainable prosperity. It sounds hard and will be. How’s your brand doing?

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