Brands show true colours

By David Benady
A Marketing Week/BrandIndex survey reveals that brands with poor environmental reputations, most notably supermarkets, can turn around their public image. But brand owners beware - consumers will not be duped by false green credentials. David Benady examines the findings

Ignore any of your other opinions about the brand, company or its products, and think only about its attitude towards the environment. Which of the following brands do you view as trying their best to be environmentally friendly and which are environmentally unfriendly?

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Which of the following brands do you view as being the most environmentally friendly and the most environmentally unfriendly?

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After a dramatic fightback, UK retailers have succeeded in convincing the public that they are leading players in the war against global warming and environmental devastation, a Marketing Week survey has found.

Green activists have long depicted retailers as arch environmental criminals, guilty of promoting wasteful packaging, unnecessary car use and profligate consumption. But the UK's top store chains have mounted a spirited fightback against this portrayal, launching an array of ecological measures in a blaze of publicity.

Our survey shows that last year's green epiphany by retailers has helped them claw their way up the list of brands viewed by the public as the UK's most environmentally committed.

"Deep green" brands The Body Shop, detergent range Ecover and organic food company Whole Earth topped our survey of the brands the public rates as environmentally friendly, but pollsters at research company YouGov, which owns BrandIndex, were surprised to discover that mainstream retailers have received some of the highest scores of all the brands listed in the survey. The Co-op, Tesco and Marks & Spencer have come right behind the deep green brands as the UK's most environmentally friendly.

Alternative energy
Stephan Shakespeare, chief innovations officer at YouGov which carried out the survey, says/ "Ethical marketing clearly works. The brands that have tried hardest to sell their green credentials are also the ones the public rates highest. However, there are also some surprises. Despite the recent bad publicity for supermarkets they are nevertheless considered some of the greenest brands and the much-vaunted investment in alternative energy by BP appears to have made its mark in the public consciousness despite recent PR disasters."

The results highlight the deep commitment and single-minded focus that companies must adopt to earn public respect for their environmental credibility. Fake greenery is as easy to spot as a fake tan.

At the same time, the public harshly judges those brands that fail to shrug off a reputation for contributing to environmental ruin. Gas-guzzling 4x4s, airlines and fast food retailers have scored worst of all in our green survey.

British Airways, American Airways and Ryanair are identified as the most environmentally unfriendly brands by well over 40% of respondents, closely followed by Range Rover, easyJet, Land Rover and Jeep.

Our internet survey was carried out by YouGov earlier this month. It probed the views of 1,132 adults who are members of its online panel.

When asked which of a lengthy list of brands they thought were trying their best to be environmentally friendly, The Body Shop was mentioned by 39% of respondents, Ecover by 36% and Whole Earth by 31%.

On a second measure, where respondents were asked to single out the one most environmentally-friendly brand, the trio also led the pack. Ecover topped this measure with 9% of mentions, coming ahead of The Body Shop with 7%. Whole Earth came equal third on this measure alongside The Co-op and Tesco, each being identified as the greenest of all by 4% of respondents.

This is slightly surprising given the campaign waged against Tesco by environmental groups such as Greenpeace through the Tescopoly website. It claims Tesco cannot be truly green as it encourages car journeys. But Tesco's fightback, launched last year with its "community plan" promising a range of environmental measures, appears to have persuaded the public that the retailer is a committed ecological player.

The Co-op is another retailer that has made much of its principled behaviour since it was founded by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, so its strong performance reflects a long-term ethical positioning. Marks & Spencer has also heavily promoted its green credentials through its "Plan A - because there is no Plan B" campaign. It has pledged to make its operations carbon neutral within five years. M&S also scored well in the survey, being mentioned by 28% as doing its best for the environment.

Asda and Sainsbury's also scored strongly, as has Holland & Barrett. Oil giant BP earned the same score as Traidcraft and Duchy Originals. Ironically, BP also scored highly on the measure of environmentally unfriendly brands, reflecting a split in public opinion about what is truly green and what is greenwashing.

Others that have scored well are ethical brands Rachel's Organic, Green & Black's and Linda McCartney vegetarian ready meals.

Interestingly, the two ethical brands that have sold out to multinational corporations - Body Shop to L'Oréal and Green & Black's to Cadbury - do not appear to have damaged their green reputations by doing so.

Neither of these parent companies' brand names feature in the survey. But when it comes to consumers identifying the single most environmentally unfriendly brands, American Airlines comes top by a long chalk, mentioned by 12% of respondents. This may reveal a perception that the American tag denotes a cavalier attitude to the environment. However, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) comes second in the list of green shame with 6% of mentions.

Divided opinions
This reflects divided opinions among the public on the environmental friendliness of the nuclear industry, with BNFL also coming sixth in the list of most friendly brands with 3% of mentions.

Meanwhile, nappies is another sector that the public has identified as environmentally problematic, with tales of landfill sites choked with disposable nappies. Brands Pampers and Huggies have been identified as environmentally unfriendly by the survey.

Overall, environmental credentials do not appear to be the most important factors in consumers' views of brands. Only 9% of respondents thought it very important whether or not a brand is environmentally friendly. This was just ahead of the 8% who think it was very unimportant. But 58%, an overwhelming majority, thought it was "quite important".

Our survey demonstrates that even brands with poor environmental reputations, such as retailers, can stage a comeback in consumers' eyes. But they need to inculcate environmental concerns into their commercial activities at a fundamental level. Otherwise they risk being exposed as fakes. 

When making decisions about buying goods or services, how important is it to you whether or not a brand is environmentally friendly?

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