Branding is generally an attempt to associate your product or company with certain ideas or images to clearly differentiate it from others in the field. At its most basic, it is little different than its roots, in which ranchers would mark their animals so that they could be easily identified when roaming or grazing together, a practice that dates back to the ancient Egyptians or beyond. Eventually, that same concept was used in commerce so that when similar products from different manufacturers were shipped or sold together, each product could be clearly identified.
However, it is the more complicated marketing of a brand that we think of as branding. In ranching, customers began to realize that certain rancher’s animals yielded better quality milk or meat and would seek out animals bearing that ranchers brand. Eventually that brand became associated with terms such as quality, dependability, affordability, and other associations that would lead to customer loyalty.
One aspect of brand loyalty is corporate social responsibility (“CSR”). Some customers want to support a brand who shares their social values, whether those values are environmental, charitable, civic, or religious. When you are competing for customers, repeat visitors, or student enrollment, sometimes any edge matters. From that standpoint, CSR has become a significant part of many sustainability programs. Doing sustainable stuff is important, but from a CSR standpoint, making sure your potential customers, visitors or students see that you are doing sustainable stuff is more important. And, as noted in this earlier blog post, highly visible recycling bins are one of the most noticeable aspects of your organization’s sustainability efforts. Folks can’t see efficient heating or air handling units. They won’t see the extra insulation or air sealing in your buildings. They won’t see the carbon offsets that you bought. But they will see your public area recycling bins. And when the stuff they can see is being done sustainably, it makes them more likely to believe the stuff they can’t see is also being done sustainably. But, are you getting enough credit just by having public area recycling bins? When they see that visible evidence of your sustainability effort, shouldn’t they see your brand associated with it so they reinforce the association of your brand with sustainability?
The effect of branding on recycling quality
One of the original reasons for branding was to clearly identify something of yours as different than other items nearby. That aspect of branding may also be of value in your recycling education efforts. As noted in the blog post Different than Home, most people’s frame of reference is what they can recycle at home. But chances are that your facility generates slightly different materials and has slightly different rules about what you can and cannot recycle. Branding your containers helps to establish that they are different than the bins at home. That makes some people more receptive to the idea that the recycling rules may be different as well.
In addition, positive perception of brand may lead folks to believe that your recycling efforts are more credible. For example, if you are an urban campus, you may find improvements from branding your bins. If folks associate your recycling efforts with terms like “credible” and your brand identifies that the bins are yours, they may be more likely to believe that items put into the bin will get recycled (or recycled to their highest and best use). Correspondingly, folks putting stuff into the bins may be more likely to take extra time to put stuff into the correct bin to help support your efforts.
Beware of negative branding
But, in all your efforts to brand, be careful of negative brand association.
I recently came back from a children’s tour of the Boston Tea Party Museum. It you are at all into marketing and have never been, I highly recommend a visit. It is amazing the impact that negative branding can have.
The British East India Company brand had achieved such negative associations with unfairness, favoritism, and even tyranny that it led a band of citizens and merchants to commit treason and destroy shiploads of tea. The effects of that negative brand association ultimately led to the Boston Tea Party and eventually a full blown revolution and war. People died in part because of hatred of that brand. That is powerful stuff and a cautionary tale about the effects of negative branding.
Now, do I think that branding your recycling bins will lead to anything that dramatic? I doubt it and sure as heck hope not. But it does provide a warning about the credibility of your brand. In the sustainability field, it is often a fine line between CSR promotions and greenwashing. The moment that someone sees a custodian dumping the contents of your branded recycling bin into the trash, it can undo a lot of your CSR efforts.
But, as long as you can avoid the impacts of negative brand association, branding your recycling bins can provide significant benefits to your CSR and recycling efforts.