Reality vs. Perception in Corporate Sustainability

Reality vs. Perception in Corporate Sustainability

Consumers have very little understanding of which companies trying to be more sustainable and which ones are not. Duh, you say? Well, that conclusion was driven home by reading MapChange 2010 from the brand agency Change.

This sustainability brand map study looked at the perceived and actual sustainability scores for 97 companies in 10 sectors and found that they didn't exactly always mesh. Some companies that were highly sustainable were not perceived as such while some of the less responsible companies were perceived to be more sustainable. Depending on who you talk to, that is another example of a communications failure or an opportunity (or both).

Some of the results were quite eye-opening. In the food and beverage sector, Organic Yogurt maker Stonyfield Farm had the highest actual sustainability score but a below-average perception, which was inverse that of Kraft, Kellogg and General Mills.

In the household sector, the perception of Clorox far exceeded their actual sustainability score (perhaps because of their recently launched Green Works brand endorsed by the Sierra Club?) while L'Oreal didn't get the acknowledgement they deserved.

But perhaps the most interesting to me was the Internet/Software/Media sector brand scores. In this sector, the perceptions of net giants Google, Yahoo and Amazon all exceeded their actual scores, while the perceptions of General Electric and News Corporation were much worse than their actual scores. GE was surprising considering their highly visible ecomagination brand and their high ranking in other surveys. And News Corp's well-publicized goal of making their operations carbon neutral appears not to have helped their public perception (perhaps they need to use language the public understands, rather than "carbon neutral").

The report authors advise brands to generate sustainable innovation quickly and communicate it effectively. The effective companies are those that follow the "5 C's of Sustainability Branding" they list: competitive, consumer-facing, core, conversational and credible. All are good points, but the one that resonated most with me was "core."

Tying sustainability to a brand's core business is another way to ensure it resonates with consumers. If a brand sells hamburgers, its sustainability has to be about hamburgers i.e. organic beef, recycled wrapper, etc. Car brands must focus on making more fuel-efficient, cleaner cars, not saving the rainforest. Don't do something that is unrelated to what people know you for, or they won't reward your efforts and you could be seen as greenwashing (emphasis added).

The entire report is well worth the read. Why? the first sentence sums it up nicely: A sustainable image can be a brand's best source of competitive advantage.


Nathan Schock's personal blog,, is the primary hub for communicating sustainability and bringing people together who do the same.