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The Secret to Differentiating Your Sustainable Business

The Secret to Differentiating Your Sustainable Business

A photo by Eutah Mizushima


It’s time to face a harsh reality: sustainability’s power as a differentiator for brands is waning. This is due in large part to the fact that so many brands have embraced it. Most people wouldn’t care if 74% of brands disappeared yet consumers increasingly demand responsibility. Seeing the way genuinely good companies use sustainability and social responsibility as a differentiator, it’s no surprise that brands have jumped on the bandwagon.


With the growing number of genuinely responsible and sustainable companies like B Corps and the proliferation of not-so-genuine greenwashers (and goodwashers), 9 in 10 consumers now expect companies to do more than make a profit. That means that while consumers may favor your brand if you’re operating sustainably, they certainly won’t view it as exceptional or different.


Sustainability Can Be An Add-On

These expectations from consumers are promising because they signal that buying responsibly is important to them. While they should theoretically prompt companies to adopt more responsible practices across their operations, many businesses get away with half-baked efforts because it’s so difficult for most of us to distinguish true responsibility from a clever marketing campaign or a CSR program with limited scope and minimal impact.


Instead of empowering conscious consumerism, these misleading practices cultivate distrust. When the expectations that marketing creates don’t mesh with the reality of the customer experience, it erodes trust in that company specifically and socially responsible businesses generally. Given the greenwashing that abounds, it’s no wonder that Americans trust only 22% of brands.


Consumers are starting to demand that companies back up their taglines and follow through on their guarantees. And companies are responding. Their bottom lines suffer when they fail to meet customer expectations and disappointment erodes trust and prevents loyalty, precluding profitable long-term relationships.


Purpose can help (Click to Tweet!)


The Power of Purpose

For many reasons in marketing and beyond, sustainability is still absolutely necessary. But it’s no longer the differentiator it once was.


Sustainability and social responsibility are largely focused on the actions and mechanics of a company — what a company does and how it does it. Purpose is rooted in the soul of a company – why it exists and the difference it makes. And that’s simply more meaningful to customers than disparate actions.


What makes you stand out is what your brand means to consumers – how they interpret and experience your brand is what builds trust, affinity and loyalty. That’s where Purpose shines.


The fundamental power of Purpose is that it introduces compelling values and emotions into the decision-making process. As Peter Noel Murray describes in Psychology Today, “When we are confronted with a decision, emotions from previous, related experiences affix values to the options we are considering.” And neuro-imagery studies of consumers’ brains even show that the richer the emotional connection with a brand, the more likely the consumer will be a loyal user.


Why is this? We choose brands to reflect our own values, to symbolize our beliefs and to build connections with others. So when a brand stands for a certain Purpose, the customer choosing it is living that shared Purpose to create their best self. The choice is not necessarily about your product, your price, your sustainability, etc. It’s what your brand means to consumers: their interpretation of – and experience with – your brand narrative.




Purposeful companies can rejoice

Edelman’s 2012 Good Purpose study confirms that “The power of Purpose is that it helps to drive consumer preference in a world where trust in corporations is low and differentiation between brands is negligible.”


And brands that answer customers’ demand for meaning are reaping the rewards: 46% of meaningful brands enjoy a higher share of wallet.


When integrated authentically and leveraged to its full potential, Purpose provides a strong foundation to:


• Strengthen your brand + bottom line
• Pique widespread interest
• Galvanize community
• Create passionate brand advocates
• Make the world a better place


For truly sustainable or socially responsible companies, their Purpose is what led them to pursue socially responsible operations and actions in the first place. Yet only a few of them are using the power of Purpose to differentiate, engage and retain.


In a few years, Purpose’ power to act as a differentiator may also begin to wane. But like sustainability and social responsibility (and unlike other fads in marketing), being a Purpose-driven company will never truly go out of style.


*Not really sure what your Purpose is? Check out our resource Purpose First: A Guide to Discovering + Defining Your Company’s Differentiator. It will help you go through the process of defining your Purpose so you can start using it to amplify your positive impact and galvanize your customer community.

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