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With Topher Burns

4 Branding Mistakes that are Stunting the Growth of your Climate Business

Founders often struggle to build an effective brand in the climate space, given the challenges of balancing an impact story with a customer value proposition (which aren’t always the same).

We sat down with Topher Burns to talk about the most common mistakes climate startups make when trying to communicate their brand– either to customers, investors, or other key stakeholders. Topher is the co-founder of Bivalve, a regenerative branding company, and has spent his career in the marketing world.

Mistake 1: Greenwashing yourself

By now, most people know what a “green” brand is supposed to look like. Pictures of plants, closeup shots of a young girl’s hand holding dirt, brown paper textures that at least looks recycled, and of course, it’s literally green. In the pursuit of trying to align with a global response to the climate crisis, an overwhelming number of climate startups end up using the same language, claims, and even the same stock photos of nature to demonstrate their connection to climate change. This simplistic branding focus has resulted in many companies that appear identical.

Category visual conventions aside, this sameness betrays a deeper problem: climate companies are still largely falling over themselves to be as climate-y as possible, from their names to their taglines to their propositions, decks, and websites. Why is this a problem? Because it’s much too broad and basic. At this stage in the development of sustainable commerce models, both investors and consumers will look at your brand and rightly say, “and…?”

Build your brand around what you specifically do better than anyone else. For example, if you’re providing forestry companies with software that helps them to harvest more sustainably then build from that offering rather than “saving the rainforest.” This signals a clear value proposition for a specific customer segment, rather than an ambiguous social impact narrative. Brand narrative is stakeholder specific; you can always align your broader impact (rainforests) with your specific role (software for efficient harvesting) for stakeholders that care.

Mistake 2: Ignoring what your customers want most

So you’ve decided to sell a cracker. What do you imagine people think about most when they buy crackers: is it flavor, texture, or carbon emissions? It sounds like a facile question, but it’s a fundamental mistake climate founders make constantly.

By naming your brand “The Carbon Cracker”, you’ve neglected to engage your own empathy for the person buying your product. In the moment that they are making the decision to work with you, what do they care about most? Are you leading with those values, or have you dismissed them and relegated them to smaller roles in your brand? You worked really hard to make your cracker a zero-emissions snack, but now you need to remember that that’s what YOU care about when you see snacks, not what your consumers see.

Mistake 3: Branding yourself as “less bad” rather than “more good”

Traditionally, sustainability marketing has been about decreasing negative impact – whether it’s killing fewer sea turtles, emitting less toxins, or clear-cutting fewer trees. This creates an emotionally complicated catch-22, as it frames Earth-positive choices with a reminder of how awful the world is.

Consumers (whether individuals, businesses, or governments) respond better to a “more good” proposition, rather than a “less bad.” If you start with “less bad”, consumers are much more likely to associate your brand with that negativity, and worse, it makes choosing your product more difficult. Instead, focus on the positive impacts your product can bring.

For example, the fashion industry is an enormous drain on water, energy, and is a leading contributor of waste globally. A sustainable fashion brand could truthfully advertise on Facebook that consumers need to buy fewer clothes, but this “buy less” message flies in the face of consumer mindset in purchase spaces, and therefore risks being ignored. Instead, this brand could highlight the positive aspects of sustainable fashion: how owning fewer pieces of clothing that are higher quality in classic cuts and colors brings adaptability to your fashion, creates a timeless aesthetic, and frees up space in your home.

Mistake 4: Mistaking price for value

Regardless of whether you are cheaper or more expensive than your competition, don’t build your brand on how much you cost. Sure, in every commercial exchange there is a brass tax moment, and brand work can never replace strong pricing strategy. Instead, what brand helps you to do is to bolster and justify your pricing. Branding is about adding desirability into the purchase decision.

Instead of branding yourself on numbers that can change, speak to the solutions you provide. What is the value you deliver to your customer or consumer? What do they get by choosing you? Is it time? Security? Assurance? Fun?

Sensitivity around cost is woven deep into the fibers of sustainability marketing. Historically, sustainable choices have a “green premium”– think organic, local, non-GMO, etc. While this is still true at times, a lot has changed, making the economics behind Earth-positive choices more favorable. Remember this: you do not need to make an excuse for your pricing. If you cost more than a competitive product, you have every right to justify your reasoning. Those reasons are the values that your brand delivers, and they are far more durable and resonant than price.

Topher Burns is a brand and communication strategist with more than 15 years of experience working with some of the biggest and best loved brands in the world (HBO, Twitch, Warner Music, Target, Coinbase, Unilever, Moderna, NASA). In his past he founded a boutique PR company, was Head of Product Innovation at digital agency Deep Focus, and Head of Strategy at design firm COLLINS. Along with cofounder Robert Balog he leads Bivalve, a regenerative branding company created to help earth-restoring businesses win in the mass market.

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