The Five Best Ways to Market Sustainability — What the Latest Research Shows
The latest market research shows that motivated consumers continue to drive the sustainability market forward and care deeply about making informed purchasing decisions. Consumer commitment to sustainability is reflected in a wide range of choices and responses to different marketing approaches — and some marketing strategies and messages are more effective and worthwhile than others.
In 2023, New York University Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) partnered with nine major consumer brands to publish a report entitled “Effective Sustainability Communications: A Best Practice Gude for Brands and Marketers” that explores what consumers want and how to reach them in an era when sustainability, human and animal health, and community integrity are considered of paramount importance. With these findings in hand, companies can better engage with motivated consumers and share the news of their sustainability achievements more effectively.
Below are what we see as the most significant findings to share with companies forging ahead in making sure their sustainability achievements reach and resonate with the most motivated and demanding of consumers.
1. Build trust with consumers by referencing science and third-party certifications to guard against greenwashing — always pair them with messaging of relevance to customers and consumers.
Certifications founded in science remain a powerful method for ensuring business operations, supply chains, and sourcing of raw materials are transparent and committed to constant improvement. But when it comes to reaching and resonating with consumers, certifications and scientific explanations should be paired with clear messaging about the relevance of these claims to the consumer. Today’s climate-conscious consumers need “a reason to care,” says the CSB report, and those consumers are unlikely to feel motivated by science, data, and certifications alone. A sustainability message that promotes that a product is "Indoor Air Quality Certified by third-party SCS Global Services, ensuring reduced air pollution for cleaner air to breathe," for example, is more likely to resonate with audiences than a claim promising "reduced air pollution” alone.
Especially if a company has invested time, energy, and capital verifying their sustainability achievements through third party certification, the research shows that mapping the positive outcomes of certification onto consumers’ reasons to care is one of the most effective ways to expand brand reach and bring in new consumers.
With increased scrutiny on environmental and sustainability claims, now is the time to share why and how your company’s products and services are grounded in science and able to withstand third-party verification and certification. And when messaged strategically, these certifications can help welcome new and reassure existing consumers in the strength of their buying choices to strike out greenwashing.
2. Companies can significantly expand brand reach — sometimes by as much as 24-33% — when sustainability claims are connected to human and environmental impacts that we all can relate to.
According to the CSB report, a company can most effectively market their services and products by ensuring any sustainability claims and certifications are shared using “simple, jargon-free” language and in concert with other important and relevant impacts that “connect directly to consumers, their families, and the world around them.”
For example, stating that a food product is “great tasting”— without any sustainability claim — is not nearly as effective as stating that a product is great tasting and “made with responsibly sourced ingredients that are SCS certified Sustainably Grown” and that “support local farmers.” These statements exemplify effective laddering of sustainability claims onto related claims, enhancing consumer understanding of why these sustainability claims are relevant to them and beneficial to the wider world.
3. Sustainability claims are most appealing when targeting specific demographics, pyschographics while using preferred channels.
The findings of the CSB study reveal that sustainability claims are either the “most appealing” or the “topmost appealing” claims to consumers. This means that companies can and do benefit by sharing their sustainability achievements or environmental claims with consumers — especially when these achievements are marketed strategically to consider demographic and psychographic relevance.
While demographics are data that segments a population by distinguishing characteristics and variables, psychographics are data that further distinguish audiences into smaller subgroups organized by interests, activities, and opinions (IAO). Knowing the specific audiences your company’s products and services hope to reach is essential, but recognizing demographics and psychographics when developing strategies and messaging to share sustainability achievements is of even greater value.
For example, the study looked at demographics and psychographics and saw that carbon neutrality, greenhouse gases, packaging materials and waste claims tend to appeal more to Gen Z’s. Additionally, TikTok plays a “very influential role” in reaching Gen Z, far more so than for Millennials and Gen X, while Gen X prefers television. Any sustainability messaging a company chooses to share should be sensitive to demographics and psychographics and be designed to reach and resonate with who your audience is and through their preferred channels.
4. The most effective sustainability messaging and product claims reflect and connect to what consumers care most about: themselves, their families, and their communities.
CSB found that companies can best resonate with consumers by using language that centers what consumers care about most: themselves, their families, local farmers, children and future generations, animal health, and sustainable and local sourcing. The CSB report notes that “Consumers care most about themselves and their families by saving money and producing less waste.” It’s not enough to acknowledge the importance of a consumer’s family, though; companies need to demonstrate why and how their product or service specifically benefits the consumer. Lowering energy bills, saving money on energy, reducing waste, working with local farms, ensuring climate-resilience, responsibly sourced ingredients from local farms — these are all examples of specific language that resonate best with sustainability-minded consumers.
Within SCS, many certifications are used by companies to help demonstrate sustainability claims that resonate with their audience. For example, Health Product Declarations showcase sustainable sourcing of forest products with FSC, SFI or PEFC certifications, or seafood products with MSC or ASC certifications.
5. Leverage sustainability messaging to deepen the consumer connection to your brand.
“Sustainability by itself will not secure a leadership position,” states the report. “Sustainability will, however, broaden reach and appeal, deepen the consumer connection, and should be leveraged as a core reason to believe.” While CSB recommends “identify[ing] the salient sustainability message that resonates with consumers and supports the brand benefit,” some companies may still be tempted to diminish their sustainability achievements for fear of drawing unwanted scrutiny or attention.
But if a company is unsure about how best to market certification achievements or sustainability accomplishments based on the latest market research, such as the findings published in the CSB report, it may be best to work directly with the certification company. By working directly with the certification company to clarify and strengthen sustainability messaging, businesses will not only have the chance to better understand the impacts and leverage the benefits that the certification offers, but also to reach the consumers driving demand for these products and services in the first place.
SCS Global Services provides a wide range of client marketing solutions and, for the past four decades, has worked with clients ranging from local businesses to multi-national corporations to relate certification claims to specific, positive outcomes for people and communities around the world.
If your company needs assistance with building brand equity through the promotion of your sustainability certifications, schedule a meeting with an SCS Client Services Team Member today to look into the different options and messaging that could positively impact your brand.