In 1952, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire. At the time, the entire river from Akron to Cleveland—about 35 miles—had no animal life. The water was a thick, rusty brown after years of pollution. This fire, only one of 13 on the river, caused over $1 million in damage to surrounding infrastructure.

I know what you're thinking: How is someone from Ohio qualified to be talking about sustainable branding? Ohio, the place where water is flammable.

The Cuyahoga River fires helped spur the creation of the EPA and the Clean Water Act. And so, despite having painted Ohio with a broad, facetious brush, it's because I'm from Ohio that I'm able to bring a unique perspective on the sustainable challenges facing us all.

I've overcome some hurdles—personally and professionally—to prove sustainability is important. Here are some things I've learned.

Why 'Green' Doesn't Work

It doesn't matter whether you believe climate change is the great existential threat of our time. "Green" or "eco" doesn't always cut it when talking to your customers.

First, we're still split on how sure we are that climate change is even happening. It's hard to sell someone a solution to a problem they may not believe is an issue in the first place. Even so, 70% of Americans believe climate change is personally important to them. And 66% of consumers said in 2018 they'd spend more on a product from a sustainable brand. And that number is even higher (75%) among Millennials.

Second, "green" and "eco" have become commoditized, overused, and misunderstood. How many cars and trucks use a variation of "ecodrive" to sell their efficiency? How many top 10 lists have we seen on social media about "going green?" Fashion brands, too, are on the bandwagon.

When everyone pays lip service to "green," it's no longer a way to stand out.

And third, people are wary of the "eco" and "green" branding hype. Many of these brands' green claims are misleading or outright false. Look no further than the Volkswagen diesel scandal. And H&M came under fire for using "sustainable materials" without actually providing any details.

Sustainable-Branding Strategies

So how do we do what's right for the planet while still bringing in a healthy profit? Here are four ways to cut through the noise.

1. Sell performance first, sustainability second

First, learn from Tesla's success.

Electric car options were once slim. And none appealed to people who actually liked cars. Tesla set out to destroy the myth that electric cars need to apologize for being cars. Today, Tesla's marketing materials focus on performance: 0-60 acceleration, aerodynamics, engineering, and range are all key points. Tesla cars became aspirational status symbols. And since 2010 Tesla has blown EV competitors out of the water.

Oh, and their sustainability message? It's as important as ever. But the only place you'll see it on the Tesla website is buried at the bottom of the navigation.

If you're having trouble selling your product as "green," turn the tables. Focus on making a killer product or service and tell people why it's the best. Prove you're best-in-class. Make it easy for them choose the best, and the sustainable qualities will be the icing on the cake.

2. Make the mission easy to understand

Second, your vision must be crystal clear. It can be complex internally. Externally, though, it should be very simple.

JUST is a company that "translates raw material, in the form of plants, into data that fuels the discovery of food technologies." But its real vision is that every community have "a food system that is fair, honest, and just." Much simpler, right? That simple mission comes through in their clever name: Its products are "just" a simple set of ingredients while being "just" for the world. And its packaging uses a bold visual system to frame up the simplicity of their products—no more, no less.

People want brands that stand for something. It's our job to make it easy for them to know what that something is. Do the hard work to clarify who you are and what your story is. No greenwashing. And you can't be all things to all people. But if your message is clear and simple, you'll connect with the people who matter.

3. Be desirable

Third, it doesn't matter how sustainable or eco-friendly your product is if it isn't desirable. Taylor Stitch is a men's clothing brand based in California. The company makes some of the best classic men's clothing on the planet while taking a stand against fast fashion.

The Taylor Stitch brand exudes an ethos that is relatable and aspirational. They're masters of audience engagement—from social media to the way they crowdfund each new product. The brand appeals to people concerned with style, durability, and, yes, sustainability. Taylor Stitch workshop products regularly surpass their funding goals many times over. That's desirability.

Many people don't perceive "eco" products as luxury or even high-quality. They aren't desirable. Think critically about how you present your product to the world. Engage your audience in ways relevant to them. Show people how your product will inspire and fulfill them. And don't mimic typical green trends.

4. Help people look good

Finally, people are driven by status. They want to be seen as savvy and conscious. Method, the design-focused cleaning brand, gets it right. Traditional cleaning products are ugly. We hide them under the bathroom sink or in the closet. Method's products are designed to be shown off.

The brand worked with Karim Rashid to design packaging. It earned the support of Target, another design-led brand. Now, people are proud to show off Method cleaning products. Having Method on the sink and in the kitchen proves they have good taste. They look smart to their friends. It sells soap, too: Method is one of the 50 most sustainable companies in the world. And it's been one of the fastest growing brands in the cleaning category.

Don't underestimate the power of peer pressure. People want to be perceived as smart, discerning, and forward-thinking. Think about what your audience wants to say to the world. Help them make that statement. You'll win fans for life.

* * *

As more and more brands become sustainable, the "eco" angle loses its ability to differentiate. That doesn't mean it's not critical—for business and the planet. It simply means we need to return to the best ways of building brands: Focus on being simple, authentic, and smart.

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Sustainable Branding: Why Leading With Green Misses the Mark, and What to Do Instead

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image of Neil Wengerd

Neil Wengerd is a partner and the creative director at Nonfiction, a graphic design and branding agency in Columbus, Ohio.

LinkedIn: Neil Wengerd