The Triple Bottom Line and 3 tips for making it count
The triple bottom line is a sustainability framework that examines a company's social, environmental, and economic impact.
John Elkington, 2018
On this World Environment Day, there’s no doubt that social media will be awash with brands posting their annual ‘we’re-a-sustainable-business’ Instagram graphic, only for it to be locked away for another 365 days.
So, how can you get the balance right and ensure your brand is using your sustainable credentials in the best possible way for your consumers?
What is the triple bottom line?
Chances are you’re already adopting the triple bottom line in your communications. Maybe even unconsciously. But let’s start with a recap. What even is the triple bottom line?
Essentially, it’s a form of corporate social responsibility based on the idea that companies should measure success not just financially, but by their environmental and social impacts, too. The creator of the theory, John Elkington, described the traditional infrastructure as ‘pure profit’.
For those in the know, the shorthand for the triple bottom line is the 3Ps:
- People: the impact your company has on society.
- Planet: the impact your company has on the environment.
- Profit: the impact your company’s finances have on the future economic system.
The pros and cons of the triple bottom line
There are a number of reasons to switch your business strategy to one involving the triple bottom line (TBL), but there are also some potential pitfalls to be aware of:
- It almost goes without saying, ultimately, it’s good for all of us.
- Long-term, it can deliver growth and better financial, social and environmental outcomes for the company.
- It gives your brand a strong sense of purpose and helps with recruitment.
- TBL has increasing legitimacy and recognition within the business world
- TBL is contingent on a number of initiatives to achieve a balance between the 3Ps.
- Easy for this to become unbalanced.
- There are no recognised or internationally approved guidelines for TBL.
- Can become a vague business model that leads to a lack of accountability and practicality.
Ok, so now you’re aware of the pros and cons and have got your triple bottom line nailed, how can you put it into practice? Read on for our tips on how to implement sustainable issues into your marketing mix.
1. Not all sustainability issues are created equal.
It’s vital to understand the sustainable, ethical and environmental issues specific to your particular category and rally fully behind those.
Normally, as an agency, we’d always advocate thinking outside the comfort zone of your sector. However, this is one area that doesn’t always benefit from this approach. Having an issue that doesn’t fully suit the space your brand inhabits could well cause more harm than good to the brand.
One pitfall is that if your sustainability plan hasn’t been fully thought through and correctly implemented, it can look like you’re simply jumping on the ‘green bandwagon’. Consumers can spot disingenuous brands a mile off and won’t hesitate to call them out. And that’s damaging.
A good starting point is the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development. This resolves to free humanity from poverty, secure a healthy planet for future generations and build peaceful, inclusive societies as a foundation for ensuring lives of dignity for all.
It’s a recognised blueprint that you can use to find sustainability issues best suited to your industry. For example, you may decide your brand would be more credible working towards greater gender equality or quality education for all, than solving environmental issues. The UN has created 17 goals in order to achieve these Sustainable Development Goals.
As part of its positioning as a global leader in sustainable financing, HSBC tasked us with producing a short video on how agriculture is transitioning to a low-carbon environment. It explained how HSBC is helping farmers to review their methods and move away from carbon and methane-intensive farming, massively reducing their carbon footprint.
This is a prime example of HSBC rallying behind a sustainability issue that suits both their business and their sector. By keeping a tighter focus within that single sector, and building the narrative around the specifics of what HSBC was able to help with, the marketing campaign managed to achieve the right balance of inspiration, innovation and credibility.
2. Remain benefit-led.
As important as sustainability is to your brand, it’s vital to remain benefit-led. Even in today’s more environmentally aware world, sustainability still isn’t the main purchase driver for consumers. However, once your superior benefits have been delivered, it can act as a key discriminator.
The trick is to strike the right balance between promoting the benefits upfront, and immediately following with your sustainable message to appeal to more ethically-minded consumers.
One of our long-term clients, JELD-WEN, asked us to help them launch a new multi-channel campaign to raise awareness of their timber windows range as both a quality and sustainable choice for customers.
We initially led with the quality and good looks you get with timber windows, while the creative underpinning the entire campaign also focused heavily on the sustainable message expressed in the campaign’s strapline: ‘Sustainability is in our nature’.
3. Mind the Consumer Value-Action Gap.
Wouldn’t it be great if consumers practised what they preached? Sadly it’s often not the case. The value-action gap describes the scenario when a consumer’s actions do not mirror their internal beliefs.
For example, although an impressive 80% of respondents in the above statistic say sustainability is important to them, the sentiment very often isn’t mirrored in their actual buying behaviour.
As consumers we’re all guilty of the consumer value-action gap. Other stuff gets in the way of our good intentions.
Essentially, we’re influenced by so many other external factors that our internal feelings about a brand or subject do not always translate into sales.
It’s an important factor to bear in mind when tackling sustainability. Many brands fall into the trap of thinking that because their consumers say they want sustainability – if the brand delivers on it – sales will increase. At the point of purchase – price, format and habit are hard nuts to crack in split-second decision making.
The TPL approach is a sustainability framework that will be felt from the C-Suite, all the way down to the new intern. Giving sustainability the same importance as profit and loss helps to ensure all are on board with your sustainable message. As long as you keep profit, people and the planet in mind you won’t go too far wrong.
Getting the marketing messaging right is the tricky bit.
Nailing exactly what your brand stands for is vital. As soon as you entertain the possibility that sustainability doesn’t just mean the environment, you’re onto a winner. Stick with whatever issue most fits your brand category. This ensures your brand activity is credible, since your business is genuinely effecting positive change, rather than saying that you are helping solve the problem.
It’s natural to want to give the sustainable message prominence in your marketing activity. However, we recommend continuing to lead with product and service benefits. Like we did with JELD-WEN’s sustainability campaign, we led with their product and the benefits associated with it, whilst the creative acted as the secondary sustainable message the brand wished to convey to its customers. Consumers can be fickle (as evidenced in the consumer value-action gap). Leading with the benefit, with sustainability as your secondary message, will draw them in, then fully convince them in the split second of the purchase decision to select your brand.
Why not use this World Environment Day to begin the conversation of sustainability in the workplace? Your business may not be ready for the triple bottom line approach, but maybe one of the above tips could be the catalyst for beginning to tackle the brand’s sustainable issues.