Reality Vs. Perception

Calling all green business people - if your company began as a way to enact your beliefs about sustainability, then your business is at odds with the status quo. This is a good thing. It gives you something to be true to -- something that's worth talking about. The typical corporation, on the other hand, does not have this advantage. A company that makes all its decisions based on increasing profits will do fine telling its story to its shareholders, but it's not a very appealing or engaging tale to relate to the general public. Hence the distance between most company's branding and their institutional realities.

When there is no distance between your genuine motivations and those that you profess, you have integrity -- which is the basis of effective branding. In other words, if you're genuinely, deeply green, you're not just good for the planet, you're good for the market. Read on for some ideas on how to use this to your full advantage.

The integrity that comes from being motivated by a higher purpose is so in demand that giant companies spend millions to fake it. They fake the fact that they are motivated by something other than increasing their revenues. They fake a level of passion that is nearly impossible to maintain in large public companies. In public they pretend to prioritize the higher good over their bottom line in a way they never would in a board meeting. BP's branding is crafted to give the impression that the company is driven enough by environmentalism to be "beyond petroleum" -- yet its actions as a corporation are clearly driven by doing whatever it takes to profit on petroleum.

If BP was earnest in its branding, it would do a campaign that rationalizes its environmentally devastating policies in Alberta under the cause of doing whatever it takes to make revenues based on selling petroleum -- but that wouldn't play very well with the public. [To be fair, the economics of the oil industry and the pressures of being a publicly traded company, mean that BP has little choice - but this is precisely the point. BP cannot tell it's whole story. Businesses with ethics in their DNA can.]

If you're motivated by sustainability and ethical trade, on one level it is harder to make a profit, because you can't simply pursue the cheapest way to make your products. Yet, as we argued in our previous post on authenticity, the side benefit of following your ideals is that it gives you access to the qualities of trustworthiness that make brands stand out in the marketplace. You have the marketable privilege of being exactly who you say you are. This integrity is a resource. Here are some suggestions on how to use it.

BE AGGRESSIVELY HONEST - Most large companies can't be totally honest, because at best it's not appealing, and, at worst, it's reprehensible. Everyday, companies affirm decisions not to use recycled materials, not to install scrubbers on smokestacks, not to decrease their cabon emissions and not to stop polluting waterways. If you're really doing what you're doing for the right reasons, you get to be honest. Examples of honesty: web sites and packaging that explain not only what you're doing well, but also what you're trying to improve. When someone is candid enough to tell you their weaknesses and faults, you're more likely to believe them about their strengths and achievements. When I saw Michael Cooke, then-CEO of Patagonia, speak at a press conference announcing his company's Capilene-recycling program, he began by declaring "we are not sustainable, not even close." This admission made everything he said afterward more credible.

BE HUMAN - In business, there is a much greater danger of being ignored than being misunderstood or dismissed as unprofessional. Ultimately, a business is a group of human beings in a relationship with other human beings. But if all your communications take the form of some perfectly punctuated "professional" voice, then you're less likely to be trusted, remembered or liked. It's good to remember that the more sincere a corporate voice is, the more human it is. Some years ago, I was involved in conceiving of several large and expensive campaigns for Sun Microsystems, none of which ended up changing the public's perception of the company in an appreciable way. Then Jonathon Swartz was given the reins of the company and started his own blog on which he was candid about what he was doing and why. His blog is now widely read and much more influential in modifying perceptions than a slickly produced ad campaign can ever be.

BE TRANSPARENT - Because there is a disconnect between the profit-seeking imperatives of business and the moral motivations that make us trust people, transparency is the exception not the rule. Most businesses don't tell you exactly where and how their products are made and their impact on the environment. If you're a green company, you don't have this disconnect. Thus, you can be transparent in a way that your conventional competition cannot be. Use this to your advantage. Transparency can be anecdotal -- simply explaining the reasoning and internal discussions behind a decision. Or it can be systematic, such as detailing exactly how products are made, how workers are paid, and even showing the documentation behind certification processes like Organic and Fair Trade.

Think about Hollywood movies. The villains are people in it for their own ends -- with a heavy emphasis on CEO's and lawyers out to make money. Their heroes -- from James Bond to Erin Brockovich to Neo - are people on a mission for a larger good. You're more like the heroes -- so with all appropriate humility, earnestness and passion -- go ahead and act like it.

Jerry Stifelman