Peter Matthews, founder and chief executive of branding agency Nucleus, says travel brands must be authentic and convincing or else an increasingly savvy and demanding customer will see through the 'greenwashing'
Guest Post: Travel has a responsibility to be courageous in creating greener brands
A 2022 sustainability report by booking.com found 71% of 30,314 travellers surveyed plan to make a concerted effort to put sustainability at the forefront of their future holiday choices.
This was a 10% leap on last year’s figure and clearly points to the heightened awareness of every individual’s climate impact.
The report shows there is a growing consumer appetite to re-evaluate the eco-friendliness of many aspects of travel from seeking low-impact properties to holiday in and the greenest transport options to travel to and use at the destination.
Yet many travel brands have been slow to shed their old economy business models. Some 36% of travellers complained that travel platforms don’t highlight sustainability information, something they strongly felt would help their decision making.
A filter specifically for more sustainable options would be helpful, according to 34% of people surveyed. Perhaps travel could go the same way as food has started by labelling destinations with carbon emission information.
For organisations the world over, sustainability is no longer just about legislation, it is turning into a key driver of consumer preference, and we are really seeing this in the travel sector.
To support this, brands need to develop new visual and verbal languages, with cues to short-cut propositions and make sustainability easy to grasp and implement.
What sustainable branding?
A sustainable brand’s reason to exist must go beyond not harming the environment, to creating positive environmental, economic and social value. But how many travel brands actually deliver on this? And can they prove it?
It’s a big responsibility and, until now, too many organisations appear to focus on just one of these dimensions, and many more make claims they can’t really justify.
The juncture where exploration meets ethics is still too vague. Without doubt it is easier to create a sustainable business in some sectors than others.
A fully digital business model is not going to face the same challenges as a travel destination, which guests have to fly thousands of miles to reach, but they can and should still fully commit to sustainability, conservation and local social responsibility to ensure they leave the lightest footprint on the planet, and society.
And they need to inform their guests accordingly. Take community stewardship – 34% of travellers say they have no idea how to find activities or tours that would positively impact local environments.
Almost the same number (32%) would enjoy travel companies making suggestions of things to do that will support native communities.
Consumers the world over are finally wising up to the platitudes of greenwashing and the fallout is causing a surge of confusion around the best options for making the correct sustainable choices.
Travel brands need clarity and transparency in their branding, and they need to ensure brand promises are kept.
Those that live up to their claims have a unique opportunity to contribute to sustainability by creating the ‘next economy’. Those that don’t will ultimately damage their brands as they chase short-term gain.
Design must inspire new economic models and deliver much longer-term and more transparent promises.
Brand designers’ crucial role is to accelerate consumer awareness and adoption of the most sustainable practices.
This requires stepping beyond merely following briefs and maintaining the status quo. We have a responsibility to be courageous in our guiding and building a new generation of greener travel brands.
How travel brands can start to achieve this
Brand propositions need to answer two specific questions; why does this brand deserve to exist, and what does it stand for?
These questions must be answered simply and clearly so consumers can make informed choices.
It is interesting to note that according to booking.com's survey, 27% of travellers assume that sustainable destinations won’t be as luxurious as they want. Comfort levels are cited as a concern.
Surely this is an opportunity for five-star luxury travel brands to review how they authentically weave sustainability into the very heart of their offering and then turn this into their unique brand narrative.
This leads us to suggest shifting beyond the ‘big idea’. Sustainability is not a trendy bolt-on to an existing offer.
It needs to be a vision that is central to every decision and supported by rigorous, sustainable implementation, with clearly articulated propositions, based on a compelling brand promise that rings true; and, when put to the test, really is true.
Sustainability needs to become an implicit attribute of every travel product. As the need for organisations to become truly sustainable continues to grow, consumers’ understanding of what makes something sustainable follows.
If the travel brand creation is well-thought-through from the start there will be a point at which the brand cues, such as low carbon footprint, non-polluting, social responsibility and destination stewardship, will become irrelevant and the brand itself will be known not just for what it does, but how it does it.
For now the focus has to be on enabling consumers to quickly tell green from greenwash, but every travel brand will need to tell their unique sustainability story in their own way.
Those that have the most convincing stories to tell will be the brands that create consumer preference that stand the test of time.
Creating a new sustainability code
Only a decade ago environmentally conscious brands led with a rustic, craft-based aesthetic to distinguish themselves from sleek, shiny mainstream brands.
The original codes acted as visual short-cuts, and used lots of green and earthy colours. Luxury almost ran contrary to what these early eco-brands valued.
It is only relatively recently that green credentials have become a potential point of mainstream competitive advantage.
Brands that are genuinely green now have the challenge of communicating their authentic promise against growing competition from big brands, claiming green or sustainable credentials.
We have now entered an era where wary consumers distrust superficial codes and have to dig deeper to identify whether this is a genuinely sustainable alternative, or just greenwash.
This is both a risk for truly sustainable brands that don’t communicate well and a huge opportunity for brands that can carve out a new niche that meshes looking good with being sustainable.
Eventually, this should be one and the same thing, and something all brands should be striving for.