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The sensory branding matrix: Finding sustainable brand opportunities in consumer products

About the author

Ronald Laan is a Strategic Advisor at Haystack Consulting. Previously, he served as the local and European CMI Manager at Heinz, where he was responsible for communication research for many years. He collaborates with his clients to maximize the potential of ideas, products, or brands.

Let me start by saying that I do whatever I can to live a greener, more sustainable life. But my bike, the ferry to work or my own two feet can only carry me so far.

I'm not the only one whose heart skips a beat when I’m able to have an impact for the greater good; brand managers and people in a challenging business environment are just as enthusiastic when a sustainable initiative crosses their path. 

That enthusiasm creates a true belief that your end consumers care just as much about this sustainable initiative as you do. And yet every so often it fails, and you're left with more questions than answers about where it went wrong. But valuable lessons can be learned from failure.

"Like so many others, I try to better my life for the good of the planet. But life just gets in the way.”

Enter the matrix.

For all those times when sustainable plans don't work out as intended, I developed the Fail versus Nail Matrix. It's not based on science or countless studies. It's an invention I created that helps me maintain an objective view and guides my clients and their brands professionally to a sustainable approach. 

My long-term passion for sensory branding will be the focal point of this article and the Matrix. Before we jump in, let's not forget the 4 Ps – Product, Place, Price & Promotion – and of course the price/value gap. Keep these in mind as we go on!

The two axes.

Like every matrix, there are two axes to focus on.

1. Sustainability in the core of your brand DNA.

    Ask yourself the question: has sustainability always been a key communication factor for your brand? Or do you see an increasing demand from consumers for a more sustainable approach, allowing you to make it an additional or ‘the’ category entry point in combination with your other benefits? Or does this just not apply to your category? That's a viable option too.

    2. Sensorial Design Familiarity.

      Now ask yourself: to bring your sustainable message across, what's the ideal balance between your sensorial assets? Many A-brands have built a competitive cumulative advantage (a term coined by the profound A.G. Lafley and Prof. Roger L. Martin substantiated by research), one that helps consumers avoid having to make a choice. In other words, consumers tend to buy the familiar, it is an unconscious habit and that is why it is so strong. 

      Take a classic crisps brand like Lays, for example. As an established A-brand, they should do what they can to avoid disturbing the shopping routine, asking themselves how much they want to change about their sensorial design to incorporate a sustainability message. Sensorial Design Familiarity is key. Meanwhile, newcomers will try anything to get consumers to notice them and break through consumer habits.

      And here it is: our Matrix. Feels naked without examples, doesn't it?

      Bringing it to life.

      The following brand examples will make the Fail vs. Nail Matrix clear. Please note, these brand positions are merely illustrative and based on my own interpretation.

      Let's kick things off with Aquafina, a bottled water brand from the United States. No mountain springs or crystal-clear waters here. They choose to focus on accessible, pure, healthy drinking water you can trust. However, when you produce millions of plastic bottles, should you pride yourself on an improved plastic bottle?

      How sustainable is that, really? Why shout about the Eco-Fina bottle, regardless of having 50% less plastic than your previous bottle, when the bottle is still made of plastic? Consumers are a tough crowd when it comes to nuances (don’t get me wrong, I applaud the change but I’m not the end consumer…). 

      In addition, the bottle did not deliver on a product experience in line with the built cumulative advantage of Aquafina. The new bottle made a LOUD crackling noise when you squeezed it, making it feel like you were drinking out of a plastic bag. Resulting in a reduced quality association (‘my pure water is not kept safe good enough’ = lower quality = unwilling to pay a premium price for it). As this tactile sensation was not in line with the brand's cumulative advantage of a smooth/pure (silent) drinking experience it convinced consumers to look elsewhere. Let's call this initial launch a fail and place it in the Fail part of the Matrix.

      From fail to hail, hail 👏

      Another example comes from the laundry detergent brand Ariel. For decades, the brand has focused on immaculately clean laundry, building on this cumulative advantage, year in, year out

      With the latest improvement of their product Ariel claims the pods work just as well at cold wash levels (i.e. using less energy) and come in a cardboard container, which is a big leap from the plastic one. A lot of effort went into making the pack look, sound and feel the same as the plastic container. In fact, it has the same opening 'click' (Sound), the same robust shape (Tactile) and a subtle hint for consumers that it is now made of cardboard. The visual tear at the front of the pack illustrates this (Sight).

      It's all about Sensorial Design Familiarity. Ariel will never revolutionise their packaging (=totally different colours, pods in a net made of straws) to inform consumers about their sustainability efforts. No, they embody cumulative advantage in balance with sustainability. This way they continue to grow their share and retain their competitive edge. Great job!

      "Well done, Ariel. You just received a spot in the Hail, Hail part of the Matrix.”

      A sustainable DNA.

      Some brands have had sustainability at the core of their brand DNA from the very beginning. With the planet being as it is (more extreme weather conditions, reduction in biodiversity, etc.), they realised sustainability will become a true priority for the consumer, as a category entry point in their category. 

      A case in point is Arla, a brand traditionally known for white containers and illustrations (below is an example from the Netherlands, but the same goes for other countries). This familiar brand has pivoted to an image of organic dairy with brown packaging in recent years, likely destroying a lot of accrued cumulative visual advantage. A deliberate, bold change.

      It's a move that will pay dividends in the long run, as their sustainable story has mileage. In the Netherlands, Arla is essentially rebuilding their image from scratch, gaining traction slowly but gradually. That’s right, just like a snail. Inching forward, slide by slide. But slow and steady always wins the race!

      Completing the matrix.

      Lastly, there are the single focus sustainability brands strategically in place to shake up the category. These brands are very vocal and have been since the start. A good example is Flower Farm, playing the palm oil card. 

      Their product is made of shea butter, in contrast with conventional margarine brands that use palm oil. Flower Farm keeps stressing this category entry point, deliberately choosing a brand design - black versus white! - that sets them apart from others in the category. Yes, they seem to have Nailed it. Taking their rightful place in the upper right corner of the Matrix.

      And there you have it! The Sustainability Fail vs. Nail Matrix is complete. Looks lovely, doesn't it? How great would it be, if next time I could show a Matrix without the bottom left corner?

      Any questions? I'm happy to help you Nail it!

      Ronald Laan
      Strategic Sensory Branding
      Haystack Consulting

      Get in touch with the expert

      Ronald Laan
      +31 20 723 42 60
      Strategic Advisor