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Today, social and environmental causes are an impetus to many company brand and marketing strategies. According to a 2017 study by Cone Communications, 87% of Americans will buy from companies who support the issues they care about; 76% of Americans expect companies to address climate change specifically. For businesses making the shift to “go green”, this is great news! Sustainable branding reinforces a company’s commitment to sustainability by giving it a face and a voice that leave an impression on stakeholders.

The world is imprinted by corporate icons like Nike, Starbucks, and Apple whose celebrity-status shoewear, famed pumpkin spice lattes, and sleek electronics continue to dominate market competition. However, small businesses lack mega-scale budgets for advertising and marketing yet they remain an integral part of their local communities. According to the Small Business Administration, there are over 30 million small businesses in the U.S. While some small businesses may not be shooting to be the next Amazon, should they still be concerned about sustainable branding? Definitely.

Often recognized as logos and slogans, a company’s brand is much more than the visual elements that catch the consumer’s eye. Branding is the strategic communication between business and buyer; it involves all the actions a company takes to deliver its message, establish credibility within the market, shape buyer perception and earn their approval and trust.

In his book The Celebrity CEO, small business expert, Ramon Ray, explains that developing a strong brand is critical for small business success. He states that small business branding is about showcasing authenticity to stand out against nothing-special competitors. Effective branding is fueled by the warm impression we make on customers to show them we care about finding a solution to their needs. Whether it’s a charismatic “How are you today?” on a customer service call or ensuring buyer favorites are always in stock, these genuine gestures bloom into long-term buyer-seller relationships. Customer engagement forms the trust and credibility that customers need when navigating a barrage of unknown brands. And it’s through this relationship building that small businesses can effectively deliver their mission, values, and goals.

The following discusses various sustainable branding and marketing strategies that small businesses can use to distinguish themselves as both a sustainability advocate and a top contender in their industry. Always remember: it is not only about sales pitches and making profit – it is also about being likeable and trustworthy, traits that small businesses exhibit with pride.

Sustainable Branding Basics

There are several sustainable branding basics small businesses can use to maintain authenticity and balance in their roles as sustainability champions and business allstars.

Stand for Something

In an age where public outcry on global issues is rising, it is no longer enough to establish company mission, values, and goals – you must stand for them. If your company prides itself on recycling but makes no effort to eliminate single-use plastics in the workspace, then this incongruence can damage your credibility. Business behavior must be a full representation of its mission statement.

And Know Where You Stand

Stay updated on industry and market trends and research your competition to understand where your company is positioned. Is your industry or market shifting away from conventional practices? What green upgrades have your competitors adopted? What initiatives can you take to ensure your relevance and contribution as a green business? How would these efforts impact your company in the short and long term? There is no doubt that the global economy is transforming so it’s critical to stay informed and keep up with the changing times.

Be Picky

Forget what your parents said – it’s okay to be picky. Small businesses cannot please everyone, thus narrowing the target market permits companies to specialize and hone in on how and to whom they want to market themselves. Defining your ideal customer persona means understanding the needs, preferences, buying habits, concerns, and expectations that you can best serve. If you’re a health food store passionate about locally-sourced goods and holistic remedies, then your brand will not target diehard fast foodies. Ideally, you will attract those consumers too but your priority lies with catering to individuals actively seeking whole foods and herbal supplements. Narrowing your target market allows you to refine your brand and how you market to consumers.

Let Your Style Shine

Now it’s time to give your brand a face and a voice. Brand identity encompasses visuals (logos, colors, typography, etc.), tone and language, slogans and taglines, and other sensational marketing materials used to sell a product or service. These elements together influence (but don’t control) the brand image, or the customer’s perception of the brand.

Since brand identity is often the first component of your company that the customer interacts with, it plays a pivotal role in securing new customers and delivering your message. For example, an eco-conscious boutique may use brand identity to reflect their fight against fast fashion through a clean, minimalist style and transparent product labels that list where fabrics are sourced.

Green Marketing: Showcasing Your Brand

A brand without solid marketing to deliver it is like having a beautiful voice but no mic for singing to the world. The following suggests some marketing strategies small businesses can use to not only promote their brand and develop credibility but also engage with stakeholders and add value to their communities.

Local Leverage

Small businesses have one advantage over large corporations – locality. According to Harvard Business Review, “72% of people believe locally-owned businesses were more likely than large companies to be involved in improving their communities.” Small businesses have close contact with the community they serve which means they can better identify community needs and challenges. Locality presents a sacred opportunity to listen to people, understand the issues they care about, and take action.

In his book, Ramon Ray affirms that “if you seek for deeper engagement with your community, you are building a relationship that lasts.” From volunteering at beach cleanups to partnering with local non-profits, there are a variety of ways that small businesses can use their corporate platform to support their communities. In turn, stakeholders will recognize your brand through your business’ devotion to community welfare.

Sharing is Caring

Providing stakeholders with transparency on your business’ practices, performance, and goals builds trust and credibility. Known as Integrative Reporting (IR), this corporate reporting method translates your business affairs into information that is valuable and relevant to your stakeholders.

Sustainability certification programs like the Green Business Bureau EcoAssessment are another way to exhibit your trustworthiness to stakeholders. With an easy-to-use self assessment, small businesses do not need to pay for pricey sustainability consultants and can quickly share their progress with stakeholders online and in real time.

Through transparent reporting, small businesses hold themselves accountable and committed to social and environmental stewardship. This initiative also eases stakeholder weariness from oversaturated markets and past events of corporate corruption.

Pass the Mic

Besides being a source for performance evaluation, customer satisfaction surveys and honoring this feedback are additional ways to build trust with customers. “Passing the mic” to customers and giving them room to speak shows that you care about their opinion and are dedicated to making improvements that will better serve them. Perhaps you’re a local cafe who has received suggestions on switching to biodegradable cups and reusable cutlery. The fact that there is a definitive interest among customers for this change should be a signal for consideration and by doing so, reinforces your commitment to sustainability and to your customers.

About the Author

Sarah Long

GBB Green Ambassador

Sarah Long is a content writer for Green Business Bureau who is passionate about the power of brand development and marketing to promote sustainability. Currently pursuing a Master’s degree focused in Sustainable Energy, she also has a special interest in emerging clean energy technology and design. Outside of academia and her career pursuits, Sarah performs as an indie folk musician and enjoys painting and going on road trips with her dog, Echo.

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