Thursday, 21 May 2009

Article for Mediacat (June)


As time goes on it becomes more and more apparent that the biggest trend in sustainable marketing is not brands going green, but brands getting other ‘brands’ (the Trustmarks™) to certify that they have really done so. The FairTrade mark grew 60% in 2007 according to the Co-op Bank survey of ethical consumerism. My guess is it will grow 200% in 2009 after its adoption by Cadbury, Starbucks, Tate&Lyle Sugar and others. Mars Confectionary (Masterfoods) have announced they will move to a completely sustainable certified range by 2020. Their first deal is with Rainforest Alliance, another big mover, also signing up brands from Nestle, Unilever, McDonalds, Kraft and others.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. 200 years ago you could buy sugar in the UK that was “guaranteed slave labour free”. That would still be a good label today, unfortunately, with some types of products like sugar and coffee. There are concerns for instance over children being sold to grow coffee as slaves in parts of Africa, something Nestle got accused over not policing. The labels are there as shields, to answer accusations such as these, to show you have a process in place to check that your goods are ethically untainted.

These Trustmarks are a sign of the times. We may like brands, identify with them, have what marketers call relationships with them. But we don’t trust them, or more accurately we don’t wholly trust the companies behind them. It is a collective failure of corporations who lost our trust over the last twenty years, through scandals and breaches of trust. In May Shell goes on trial in New York over its alleged role in the murder of an activist in Nigeria. Other ‘alien tort’ cases (where an American company is tried in America over breaches of human rights elsewhere in the world) are being brought against Coca-Cola, Exxon Mobil, Walmart.

We also don’t trust advertising claims. in the 1990s Faith Popcorn suggested that there should be a brand which certified advertising claims as 100% true and reliable. We have advertising authorities and we have regulation, but she meant something much more stringent, that would conform with what people would regard as truth. Like cereals which are 50% sugar not connecting themselves with health. Or cars which are lets face it not exactly Aston Martin being associated with sexual success and ‘cool’. Advertising is all exaggerated, everyone knows that and it can be part of the charm, but today people don’t trust it because it has become so devalued. A good way of doing this today might be to create a review system for viewers. They could judge (from 1 to 5 stars like on how misleading or truthful an advert was. This could become a guide for other viewers. And also give advertisers feedback on their output, pointing out campaigns which as teachers put it when marking homework “could try harder”. If a TV company hosted this scheme, they could give cheaper rates for 5 Trustar (Trust Stars) commercials. In Belgium one TV company already gives a 30% discount to leading green (eco friendly) products.

Trustmark™ was a branding idea I had on a project for a new eco label (we aren’t using it, it was too broad and generic). Another idea I had on this project was to create a service called Brand Rehab. This would be used by a corporate as a crisis management tool for a brand had got found out on some issue. Like Nike in the 1990s when the picture appeared of a child stitching one of their footballs in Pakistan. Or Unilever last year when it was accused of buying palm oil in Indonesia grown on land where deforestation had been used. Brand rehab would act like the Betty Ford clinic is used by celebrity agents in Los Angeles. “Yes there clearly has been an issue. We are now in rehab, so you can be sure the issue is being dealt with.” This would damp the flames of further press investigation, you would just update them factually on progress and process, with nothing to hide the story would become a bore for them. It would also be an independent means for corporates to ensure that they actually were putting things right. Like the independent police complaint commissions that many have to investigate complaints over policing. Like all great brands, BrandRehab would have a human promise and also would create (or protect) brand and shareholder value.

You might want to have a meeting with someone like the WWF (who could provide the credible back end services) to explore all of this this. It’s a new market where people with skills in inventing brands can make value out of concepts. With the recession it’s nice to see a wide open new market, where ideas can so simply and effortlessly meet a need and create value, right?


paul macfarlane said...

Personally, I think it's a problem..too many labels and codes, certifications for most of us to pour through, learn about and remember when at the market.

Necessary, but as a vegetarian I already read more than your average shopper.

Liz Douglas said...

I have recently come across the Carbon Trust's Carbon Reduction Label, which has been piloted by Boots and Walkers (among many other companies that have signed up to scheme). I think that it offers a promising solution to some of the current problems of over-labelling, label credibility and consumer confusion. The basic idea is to label products with a Carbon Footprint that has been measured from every aspect of their 'lifetime'- crucially incorporating the supply chain and user-end emissions. If it were possible to adopt the Carbon Reduction Label across the market, or to implement some other uniform label that informs, as opposed to accredits, then I believe consumers would be in a better position to 'green' their purchases and that companies would be better encouraged to reduce the environmental impacts of their products.

John Grant said...

Hi Liz, yes I know it well; the trial is pretty much done it is actually now being rolled out as a British Standard (PAS2050) plus they are in discussion with a number of countries outside UK, so hopefully will be both widely adopted and also incorporated within broader certification schemes. The problem is with this being the only standard is that carbon reduction is just one measure - even for climate change. It's a great standard but it wouldnt substitute necessarily for buying fairtrade, organic, local etc. - & organic agriculture might be the key to carbon absorption if you read recent studies on soil sequestration & regenerative agriculture (eg the IPCC are looking at incorporating this in a major way - plus biochar takes this a stage further).