Green Brands and Sustainability Branding: Definition, Concepts, Theory

Green, responsible and sustainable – terms that have become very popular in recent years, and rightly so, since issues such as air and water pollution, climate change, or scarcity of natural resources (growing population on a finite planet!) are becoming more and more palpable. Concerned citizens and consumers expect brands to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. But what exactly are green brands, and how do they differ from other brands? And what is the link between sustainability and branding?

Learn about:

  • What a green brand is;
  • Approaches to green brand positioning (sustainability branding);
  • The purpose of green place brands;
  • The danger of ‘greenwashing’.

What is a green brand?

A green brand, according to Insch (2011), is a brand where environmental values constitute the brand essence. Although the selective positioning and promotion of places based on their natural attractions and environmental credentials is nothing new, with increasing recognition and awareness of environmental issues, emphasis on aspects of environmental sustainability in both product and place branding have become more frequent (Insch, 2011).

Encouraged by rapidly augmenting global demand for natural products, companies increasingly seek to make links between their green credentials and a positive, attractive lifestyle. As Meletis and Campbell (2007) note, concerned consumers are opting for those products and services perceived least harmful to the natural environment, such as eco-friendly holidays, which presents a strong business case to focus product and place advertising on green credentials.

Functional and emotional approaches to green brand positioning

According to Hartmann, Apoalaza-Ibáñez, and Forcada-Sainz (2005), there exist essentially two approaches to green brand positioning: functional and emotional. Where functional brand positioning appeals to the rational mind by providing detailed information on environmental benefits, emotional brand positioning stresses brand benefits related to people’s emotional needs, such as a sense of satisfaction from contributing to the improvement or protection of the environment, or from exhibiting one’s lived environmental consciousness to others.

Crucially, as empirical research conducted by Hartmann et al. (2005) showed, functional attributes alone are insufficient to convince potential consumers of a product’s environmental benefits. Rather, the combination of functional and emotional positioning resulted in the strongest shift of brand perception.

The most effective green branding strategy would pursue “the creation of emotional benefits sustained by information on environmentally sound functional attributes” (Hartmann et al., 2005, p. 21).

A similar conclusion was offered in a report by the UK think tank Forum for the Future (2008), which stressed that a trusted, aspirational brand is just as important as providing detailed product information.

Green place brands: winning hearts and minds

The popularity of green branding and the positioning of products or places according to their environmental credentials can also be understood as a reaction to societal demands.

Essentially, in today’s risk society (Beck, 2009), concerned citizens and consumers have become increasingly wary of environmental issues and aware of the need for sustainability (Inglehart, 1997; Miles & Frewer, 2003; Roper, 2012), calling for precautionary measures to be taken “against potential and already evident environmental and social consequences of modern technology” (Roper, 2012, p. 15).

As Anholt (2010b, p. 70) stresses, “more and more people in more and more countries feel unable to admire or respect countries or governments that pollute the planet, practice or permit corruption, trample human rights or flout the rule of law.”

In this context of global environmental expectations, green place branding transcends into politics and public diplomacy, with countries attempting to win the hearts and minds of the international community (Morgan, Pritchard, & Pride, 2011).

Especially for small countries, creating a profile that makes them stand out from the crowd, such as by demonstrating environmental leadership, has become indispensable to survive in the global market place (Morgan, Pritchard, & Pride, 2011).

Competition is now based on “cultural, environmental, imaginative and human qualities rather than on raw power” (Anholt, 2010a, p. 37).

What is more, green place branding goes beyond the potential of sustainability as a powerful differentiator (Dinnie, 2011) in that it can also facilitate and encourage those living within a place to commit to sustainability (Ritchie & Crouch, 2003; Westgate, 2009).

Beware of greenwash!

Branding a product or place as “green” can be risky. If vague or loosely defined, such branding is prone to accusations of greenwash (Delmas & Burbano, 2011; Insch, 2011), namely environmental claims made to suggest environmental responsibility which are not backed up with evidence.

As Insch (2011) observes, destination marketers in particular tend to draw heavily on natural attractions, thereby running the risk of overstretching their environmental credentials.

Hence, “in the complex context of growing concerns about environmental degradation, especially climate change,” without integrity green place branding is a high-risk strategy (Roper, 2010, p. 1).


Anholt, S. (2010a). Places: Identity, image and reputation. Houndsmills, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Anholt, S. (2010b). Towards ‘governmental social responsibility’. Journal of Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 6(2), 69-75. doi: 10.1057/pb.2010.18

Beck, U. (2009). World at risk (C. Cronin, Trans.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press.

Delmas, M.A., & Burbano, V.C. (2011). The drivers of greenwashing. California Management Review, 54(1), 64-87. doi: 10.1525/cmr.2011.54.1.64

Dinnie, K. (2011). The ethical challenge. In N. Morgan, A. Pritchard & R. Pride (Eds.), Destination brands: Managing place reputation (3rd ed., pp. 69-80). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Forum for the Future (2008). Eco-promising: Communicating the environmental credentials of your products and services. London, United Kingdom.

Hartmann, P., Apoalaza Ibáñez, V., & Forcada Sainz, F.J. (2005). Green branding effects on attitude: Functional versus emotional positioning strategies. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 23(1), 9-29. doi: 10.1108/02634500510577447

Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Insch, A. (2011). Conceptualisation and anatomy of green destination brands. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality, 5(3), 282-290. doi: 10.1108/17506181111156970

Meletis, Z., & Campbell, L. (2007). Call it consumption! Re-conceptualizing ecotourism as consumption and consumptive. Geography Compass, 1(4), 850-870. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2007.00048.x

Miles, S., & Frewer, L.J. (2003). Public perception of scientific uncertainty in relation to food hazards. Journal of Risk Research, 6(3), 267-283. doi: 10.1080/1366987032000088883

Morgan, N., Pritchard, A., & Pride, R. (2011). Tourism places, brands, and reputation management. In N. Morgan, A. Pritchard & R. Pride (Eds.), Destination brands: Managing place reputation (3rd ed., pp. 3-20). Oxford, UK: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Ritchie, J., & Crouch, G. (2003). The competitive destination: A sustainable tourism perspective. Cambridge, UK: CABI Publishing.

Roper, J. (2010). CSR as issues management. Paper presented at the 60th Annual International Communication Association Conference, Singapore.

Roper, J. (2012). Environmental risk, sustainability discourses, and public relations. Public Relations Inquiry, 1(1), 1-19. doi: 10.1177/2046147X11422147

Westgate, J. (2009). Brand value: The work of ecolabelling and place-branding in New Zealand tourism. Auckland, New Zealand: School of Environment, The University of Auckland.

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