E-dition Exclusive: Sounding off on Sustainability
Lori Colman, Contributing Editor

If your company has a sustainability initiative -- and seemingly every one does these days -- how do you successfully leverage these investments throughout your communications?  Is “green” to be imbedded in your brand?  Does having a sustainability policy or offering green products drive trial?  Increase loyalty?  Is it a customer message?  An investor message?  Both?

Many CPG companies have jumped on the green bandwagon in response to Wal-Mart’s 15-point supplier sustainability mandate.  However, Wal-Mart is not the only one paying attention.  

- Corporate sustainability initiatives are ranked and reported across multiple investor-community indices such as the Dow Jones sustainability Index, S&P’s Carbon Efficiency Index and NASDAQ’s Global Sustainability 50 (and by the way, very few food/beverage companies are deemed worthy).

- Advocacy groups, such as Greenpeace and Cornucopia Institute are using social media, search functionality and very creative micro-sites to “out” green-washers and evaluate supply chains.  

- The FTC and FDA now have teeth, and are much more aggressive in vetting messaging.    

- And with technology at everyone’s fingertips, consumers have a ready platform for spreading opinions through product review sites and social media.  

Millennial consumers -- the 18-34-year-olds who are beginning to purchase food and beverage products for themselves and their families -- are particularly looking at the world through a greener lens.  As they develop preferences for products and brands, meeting their demands around sustainability practices should be of paramount importance to manufacturers.

What do Consumers Think About “Sustainability”?
Colman Brohan Davis has conducted consumer research over the past few years and watched as sustainability shot up the ladder as a key criterion influencing an individual’s purchase of food and beverage -- surpassing organic, shelflife, packaging, fair trade and brand name in importance.

So the company dug deeper in order to identify what people think a company means when talking about its sustainable or green credentials -- and to see if that meshes with what is most important to consumers.  It does not.

The company also wanted to find out if basic age and gender demographics have any bearing on one’s green sensibilities.  They do.

Research conducted in August, 2010 was structured to obtain responses from 500 participants with a 50/50 gender split and divided equally into four age groupings:
* 65+ (the Silent Generation)
* 46-64 (Boomers)
* 29-45 (Gen X)
* 18-28 (Millennials)

Across all age categories and genders, consumers have noticed food/beverage companies talking the green talk.  More than 85% of our survey participants said they are seeing more products carrying a “green” or “sustainable” message and noticed more companies talking about their “green” or “sustainable” business practices.

What do people think a company means by “green” or “sustainable"?  It appears that the industry has done a great job emphasizing packaging reduction and recyclability, as the biggest response was just that.  Here is a breakdown:

(Story continues after chart below.)

What do you think a company means when talking about “green” or “sustainable”?AgreeDisagreeNot sure
Product packaging, like using recycled materials or not using plastic85%8%7%
Farming practices, like not using pesticides and/or humane animal treatment81%9%10%
Reduction of pollution and energy in the manufacturing process78%9%13%
How food or ingredients are harvested67%16%17%
Transportation -- getting items to stores57%23%21%
How processed a product is56%21%23%
Which country the food or ingredients come from35%42%23%

Yet when asked about the personal importance of these topics, packaging oddly ranked last, regardless of gender or age.   The top three, within two percentage points of one another are:
1) How processed a product is
2) Humane treatment of livestock/poultry
3) Reduction of pollution and energy in the manufacturing process  

Generational  Attitudes That Will Impact the Food Industry
In answer to, “Do you regularly buy food or beverages claiming to be 'green' or 'sustainable'?” Millennials were overwhelmingly in the positive, at 78%, whereas Silent Generation respondents were only 37% likely.  Women are slightly more inclined to do so than men. The reason?  People believe that green products are better for the environment and healthier.

When asked whether they have ever taken action to encourage a company to develop better sustainability business practices, more than 83% of Millennials and 67% of GenX answered in the affirmative.  Activities include “reporting” via social media, writing letters and sending emails directly to a company, attending live demos, signing petitions, and participating in both online and offline boycotts.  

Most want to believe that sustainability claims are credible.  Yet the younger the demographic, the more likely someone is to fact-check the validity of these claims. And interestingly, men did more substantiating than women.  

Have you ever verified the “green” or “sustainable” claims of a food or beverage product?”
Age 65+:    Yes:  9%    No:  91%
Ages 50 – 64:    Yes:  15%    No:  85%
Ages 35 – 49:    Yes:  32%    No:  68%
Ages 18 – 34:    Yes:  63%    No:  37%

Some of the sites that are used for checking include Fooducate, Good Guide, TreeHugger, The Ethicurean, The Daily Green -- even Consumer Reports Greener Choices.  Many have smartphone apps that allow product vetting and comparison right at the point of sale.

Opportunities for Defining Your Green Messaging
There is a lot of discussion regarding how consumers are befuddled by the concept of sustainability.  It is Colman Brohan Davis' belief that how CPG companies are defining the term confuses consumers, yet their personal values are fairly clear.  Could it be that some declarations such as “earth-friendly,” “natural” or even “organic” have become white noise?  With no official definition, manufacturers have been quite liberal in using such claims to the point that many folks simply tune out.   Then there are claims that seem rather ambiguous to consumers -- like “carbon neutral” or “carbon free.”

CPG companies will benefit by being well-defined in messaging, and providing additional proof points online.

So, if you have done something really good to make your product or brand greener -- and can substantiate its impact -- talk about it in very specific terms. Third party endorsements -- as long as they are from a certified organization -- can be powerful.

Make claims proudly on the packaging, talk about them in social media, consider a micro-site to deliver further proof points and set the brand apart -- anything that provides consumers the transparency they demand.  

Lori Colman is the founding partner and co-CEO of Colman Brohan Davis, Inc (www.cbdmarketing.com), a strategic branding and integrated marketing agency serving national and global companies in sectors including food and food ingredients. Lori’s expertise in brand development is focused on keeping brands relevant in the consumer-controlled future. She is also deeply engaged in preventing the commoditization of brands, and the work needed to halt the debilitating slide down that path. Lori has spearheaded marketing initiatives on behalf of Penford Foods, Ralston Foods, Loders Croklaan, Lipid Nutrition, Janssen Pharmaceutica and Grecian Delight Foods, among others. Prior to starting her own firm in 1988, she was an executive with agencies Cramer-Krasselt and Draft, and at Colgate-Palmolive. Lori speaks internationally on branding and marketing topics and Colman Brohan Davis has been named a “Top Agency” on BtoB Magazine’s national ranking list for the last five years.  Contact Lori at lcolman@cbdmarketing.com.

From the January 24, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition