I read a very interesting report recently about differences between the way the public perceives the “greenness” of companies and the reality of their green activities according to some “objective” scale. The report is the second published by Maddock Douglas, a Chicago-based business consulting firm. Here is the preamble to the report.
A sustainable image can be a brand’s best source of competitive advantage. Although there are benefits to adopting sustainability measures for other reasons (efficiency or compliance, for example), building sustainable consumer-facing brands can provide real differentiation in increasingly commoditized consumer product / service markets. Change’s first MapChange study in 2008 showed a significant difference between brand perception and product reality. Consumers thought certain brands were sustainable when they actually weren’t, while other brands weren’t considered sustainable, when they really were. This year we wanted not only to profile the difference between actual and perceived brand sustainability, but how the brands in question measure up against their direct competition.
The key finding from the survey was: “Across every sector, MapChange shows a disparity exists between the actual sustainable activity of brands, and consumers’ perception of sustainable activity of those brands.” Some of the 10 industrial sectors scored higher as a group on the reality side of the ledger, labeled as brand sustainability. Reality was measured by the company’s score in the [Climate Counts](http://www.climatecounts.org/about.php) newly released 2010 corporate climate scores. This index is limited to climate change and leaves out much of what is considered green today.
I looked at all the scores and couldn’t make much sense of them. Neither, apparently, could the person in charge of the study. The New York Times published a [story](http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/11/report-pits-perception-against-reality-on-issue-of-green-business-practices/) about the report that included excepts from an interview with Marc Stoiber, vice president of green innovation at Maddock Douglas. He couldn’t explain why Wendy’s had a moderately high perception rating (64), the highest in the food group, ahead of MacDonald’s and Starbucks, but one of the lowest actual rating (2) of all companies in the survey. Only SkyWest Air (0) and Regions Bank (1) scored lower.
I think this whole exercise is off base. It is conceptually flawed as it uses a very narrow index of sustainable performance, based only on climate change. Not surprisingly, transportation companies have lower scores, in general, than do household products. On the other side of the ledger, the brand perception is based on a broad assessment of a firm’s total commitment to sustainability, whatever that means. And that is the second big problem. Branding is a very imperfect and distorting process for depicting sustainability or greening. Each company will point to that set of factors that allows it to make the broadest claims. My reading of the whole survey is that the public is very confused about sustainability and that the way to help them is not through branding. From a sustainability perspective, it matters not at all whether Southwest Airlines is perceived to be at the top of its peer group. What matter is that consumers understand that airline travel is very bad for climate change relative to other modes of travel. Branding may give Southwest an advantage, but ignores the needs of the world out there. The survey is little more than a great selling pitch for advertising and public relations firms.