Communicating Sustainability: Reaching Audiences With the Right Message, in the Right Place

Sustainable development goals valid in future modern industry green picture

By Miriam Konz, EVP, AMC Global

Sustainability is a theme that continues to stay top-of-mind. During the pandemic, the importance of environmental concerns rose and some people had more time to look closely at what they were purchasing and its impact on the environment. Also, with crazy weather patterns around the world, the coverage of climate change has also ramped up consumers’ attention to sustainability.

But just because more people are paying attention doesn’t mean that there is a clear understanding of what sustainability means. It is multifaceted—from packaging to farming to shipping—something we’ve explored at length in our ongoing consumer study and paper about the impact of a brand’s sustainability practices on consumer behavior.

Even though there are many different ways to implement sustainable practices, your efforts may not be fully apparent to your consumer audiences. Uncovered in our latest consumer behavior study, many consumers do not understand what brands are doing on the sustainability front. This indicates a need for better information distribution by companies themselves, in preferred channels, and the need for consumer education on what sustainability is and what it means.

The Unknown Quantity

We asked an open-end question in our survey, allowing people to respond qualitatively and name a brand they felt was sustainable. Despite the news buzz, 60% of respondents say that it is difficult to tell which brands are sustainable and which are not. Many couldn’t even think of a brand off the top of their heads that was engaging in environmentally sound practices. When asked “Tell me about a company or brand that you have heard of that is in the forefront of sustainability practices. Who are they and what are they doing regarding sustainability? Why is it important to you?” nearly 45% of our respondents could not identify a company with sustainability practices. Some open-end responses included:

“I do not know of any company or brand that is in the forefront of sustainability practices.”

“I don’t know any company that specifically practices sustainability but the more I read about the importance of sustainability the more I will pay attention to companies that promote these practices.”

Consumer Sources of Sustainability Information

In addition to not knowing what companies are doing on the sustainability front, many people aren’t sure where to look for sustainability information.

“I have not seen anything about sustainability from any company. I would like to see information about sustainability of products—I don’t know how to find this information.”

Forty percent of consumers who seek sustainability information said they rely on packaging information to understand what brands and products are doing for the environment, with 25% relying on company advertising. This means the marketing and messaging around sustainability initiatives needs to be clear. Using market research approaches like message testing and package testing can be key in getting the word out, right, to target audiences.

Credibility and Consumer Trust

Distrust of sustainability claims seems to run rampant, looking at responses to our study. Many respondents felt that even if they were educated, that they couldn’t trust what companies told them about sustainability, environmental and human safety practices.

“I am dubious of all companies which claim commitment to sustainability. More often than not it is an excuse for a higher price immediately to fund an initiative to start 5 to 10 years hence.”

“My priority is toxic chemical free products. If you can’t eat it without being poisoned on any level then the product will never enter our home. The Corporations are more interested in pleasing their shareholders so it will be a long time before they have what I want.”

“I do not believe the claims of sustainability. It is pretty much a self-defined standard by brands that is just more advertising in order to charge a higher price. An electric car that runs on electricity produced by coal and natural gas is not really better for the environment.”

This is important because brands must hit the right note when communicating with consumers in order to build brand trust and enhance brand perception—among the key aspects of continuing customer loyalty. Using brand research approaches like brand health tracking or brand engagement studies can help understand claims’ impact on brand trust.

Misinformation and Misunderstanding

Also, other consumers mentioned some of the biggest polluters in the world as sustainable. And while some brands may actually benefit from this consumer confusion, it is definitely an area where further consumer education is needed. Foundational and discovery research can help brands establish a baseline of understanding consumer perceptions, and then they can work on educating consumers where they see gaps in understanding. Also, many may not understand that sustainability goes beyond packaging and hits all stages of the supply chain.

What The Future Holds

Sustainability comes in many forms, and various companies are focusing on various initiatives as interest ramps up among consumers and more governmental regulations go into place regarding environmentally-friendly practices. While consumers clearly care about sustainability practices by the brands in which they do business, there is a disconnect between brand actions and consumer understanding. Brands must find out where their audiences are seeking this type of information, what aspects of sustainability are most important, and then communicate the right sustainable messages in the right places.

About the Author

Miriam Konz is EVP of Corporate Strategy and Innovation at AMC Global, an international custom market research firm specializing in launch strategies and brand tracking. Throughout her career, she has been involved in strategic studies with an emphasis on product development, market segmentation, product line extensions, pricing and new product/concept testing. She has conducted in-depth research around the world, and served in leadership roles at companies like Kadence International, in4mation insights, TNS (now Kantar), Knowledge Networks (now GfK), Stratford Associates and CLT Research Associates. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Management and Marketing from the University of Rhode Island.