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August 20, 2020

Brand Sustainability Perception and the Role of Age

by Joy Corkery

Sustainability is one of the most important issues of our time. That means that brands no longer have the luxury of ignoring sustainability practices. Those who don’t, succeed. In fact, CPG sales from sustainably marketed products grew by 50% from 2013 to 2018.

Consumer perception now has the power to shape a company's future and building a brand that is perceived as sustainable is a requirement in today’s world. If a brand doesn’t adhere, they will be punished. Take the fast fashion industry, as an example. With the release of reports highlighting the industry’s high carbon emissions and the millions worth of clothing that fills landfills every year, people are moving away from brands like H&M and Zara toward more sustainable brands such as &Daughter and House of Sunny. We can see this in the numbers as the global fast fashion market is expected to decline from $35.8 billion in 2019 and to $31.4 billion in 2020.

However, every brand and every industry is different. What is happening in the fashion industry might not be reflective of the technology industry, for example. The key to really knowing how your brand can embrace sustainability and grow is by understanding key audiences.

We used our sustainability tracker to unearth key insights brands can use in their strategy. Some of the most interesting information we found was surrounding differences in brand perception across generations. While social media might give the impression that only the younger generation cares about sustainability, is that really the case? Let’s zone in on brand sustainability perception and the role of age and help companies make better choices.

Differences in brand perception across generations

Placing a generational lens on brand perception shows clear divides in opinion between older and younger generations. Consumers not only view specific brands differently, but entire industries vary in reception too.

Baby Boomers are most critical of brands when it comes to environmental sustainability

brand sustainability perception generations

The perception of brand sustainability seems to have some consensus between the oldest generation and the youngest. The oldest generation, Baby Boomers (56-65-year-olds), are most critical of brands, followed by the youngest, Gen Z (18-25-year-olds).

Both mid-generations, Gen Y (26-40-year-olds) and Gen X (41-55-year-olds) have average brand receptivity - Gen Y being the most positive about brands' sustainability efforts.

While the younger generations may be the ones advocating for sustainability in the public eye, it is the Baby Boomers who are protesting with their wallets. And with older generations earning more, it is them who will hurt sales most in the long term.

Keep note of this when running your marketing campaigns. Even if your product doesn’t immediately seem like a fit for this age group, remember that they are also parents and grandparents - the ones making the purchases for your target audience. In addition to sustainability, Baby Boomers also value education, loyalty, and authenticity. Create a connection between your brand and Baby Boomers in your marketing and you can easily tap into the market really making the decisions.

The most sustainably rated brands differ by generation

The most sustainably rated brands differ by generation

It also helps when creating a sustainable brand to see what strategies work well for other companies. We found that top-rated brands also differ across generations. For Gen Z the most sustainable brand is Google, while it is Discovery that comes out top for both Gen Y and Gen X, and PayPal for the oldest generation of Boomers.

An interesting mix of brands, you might agree. What is it that attracts the different generations? Let’s look at some mini case studies.

Case study: Google

Google strives to achieve the most of innovation without using extra resources. They want to “empower users with technology to help ensure a cleaner, healthier future for generations to come.” This appeals to Gen Z’s desire for convenience and technology tailored for individual needs.

google sustainability

Technology companies like Google have acknowledged that these desires make Gen Z a very responsible group. They have made themselves aware of Gen Z’s priority toward companies who set an example and promote sustainable choices and market towards these areas.

Case study: PayPal

23% of Baby Boomers say they prefer their digital wallet over the traditional ways of transferring money so this age group would have a strong awareness of PayPal regardless. However, PayPal’s strong stance on sustainability is likely to have strengthened the bond between the brand and this older generation.

paypal sustainability

PayPal’s Global Impact Report for 2019 showed the brand significant advancement in the area of sustainability, including the fact that it has matched 65% of the energy in data centers with renewable generation (the company's goal being 100% by 2023).

Brand Sustainability Perception Age x Industry

By breaking our data into blocks, we also saw nuanced results across whole industries between the generations. Business services/finance and alcoholic beverages perform worse with the younger Gen Z's. Brands such as American Express, Cisco, IBM, SAP, and Oracle are rated lower than average within the business industry, and brands like Budweiser, Corona, and Heineken perform poorly within beverages.

Brand Sustainability Perception Index Age x Industry

For the oldest Baby Boomers, apparel and tech perform particularly poorly. Lower than average rated brands within apparel include Adidas, H&M, and Nike. For tech, the list includes Amazon, Facebook, Huawei, Nintendo, Spotify, and Uber - even business tech solution company Salesforce performs poorly for this generation.

If you think back to earlier commentary on fast fashion, it is not a surprise to see H&M in this list. However, Nike surprising. Nike has been very tactful with its marketing, given the impression of a highly sustainable company. That’s not exactly the case. While Nike has made some positive changes in the last few years, it still only uses a few eco-friendly materials and has refused to commit to the removal of hazardous chemicals.

It is always expected to see the automotive industry on a list of the least sustainable brands and it performs worst across most generations, except for Gen Y.

Gen Y perceives the luxury industry to be the least sustainable. This is interesting as this generation makes up one of the largest and fastest-growing segments of the luxury consumer base. Luxury brands have mostly focused their marketing efforts on Gen Y-ers as they consider that market to have the most long-term potential. However, this potential could rapidly evaporate as Gen Y moves more to caring about the environment than making a fashion statement.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that for brands to win the loyalty of today’s consumers, they need to move more toward sustainability. However, brands need to make this move carefully and steadily; one slip up could undo much hard work.

To create a strategy based on sustainability, brands need to understand their target audience more. As we have seen, what constitutes a sustainable brand in the eyes of one generation may not be the case for another. Brands should commit now to track their sustainability perception so they can make better decisions.

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