How do you take your coffee? Black, white … or green?

Firms that are serious about becoming truly sustainable have realised that they can’t do it alone. The CEO of Illycaffè, Massimiliano Pogliani, expresses the importance of customer engagement


A company, as rule, sits at the centre of its own universe. It’s not that the firm’s external stakeholders don’t matter, but it does tend to hold them at a distance, like planets orbiting a sun. Yet, when it comes to sustainability, the corporate solar system is much smaller and intimately connected. When business A sneezes, community B catches a cold, supplier C trips up and river D cops it. 

Closing the artificial space that businesses have placed between themselves and all other interests is vital for the future of both capitalism and the planet. So says Massimiliano Pogliani, CEO of Italian coffee brand Illycaffè. 

As he puts it: “We must reduce this war between companies and us, because we are all living in the same situation.”

Consumer connections

In brand-speak, “us” translates to all consumers. It’s no surprise that such a view should come from someone who’s steeped in marketing. Pogliani was chief marketing officer and then CEO at both luxury phone brand Vertu and Nestlé Super Premium before taking the helm at Illy in 2016. 

Pogliani is highly attuned to global consumer trends and knows very well that public attitudes are changing, especially when it comes to the impact of commerce on the environment. Furthermore, he’s observed that younger consumers in particular are becoming increasingly prepared to change their own behaviour to protect the planet. 

“They are not only looking at what companies are doing; they are also looking at themselves,” he says. 

This growing consumer interest in corporate sustainability practices is important for at least two reasons. The first is that protecting threatened forestry, say, or monitoring suppliers’ environmental standards (two elements of Illy’s sustainability programme) come at a cost – one that’s typically passed on to consumers.

 We must reduce this war between companies and us, because we’re all living in the same situation

Pogliani doesn’t put it quite that bluntly. He knows that, while some shoppers might pay the so-called green premium, most will not. Instead, he prefers to wrap Illy’s sustainability commitments around a wider quality proposition. 

“We talk about quality in the broadest sense here,” Pogliani explains. “We refer to the quality of our product in terms of its taste, of course, but we also embed its social and environmental attributes.”

The second reason why consumers’ interest in sustainability is important is that the success of a firm’s work in this field depends on the extent to which it engages them. That’s because the so-called use phase is where a brand leaves much of its environmental footprint. 

Take Illy, for instance. The company plans to become carbon neutral in time for its centenary in 2033, which will require it to adopt several energy-efficiency measures. Yet, if millions of its customers were still in the habit of boiling a full kettle to make a single cup of coffee at that point, that would render Illy’s efforts largely meaningless. 

With this risk in mind, the brand recently started a consumer-focused marketing campaign called ‘One makes the difference’. The idea this conveys is that anyone can advance the sustainability cause, whether they’re the head of a multimillion-euro business – Illy turned over nearly €447m (£379m) last year – or an espresso-loving homeworker in Turin.


‘Story-doing’

But the task of persuading consumers to get on board and help a brand become more sustainable is not easy, as Pogliani readily admits. For one thing, scepticism is rife, as not all brands are sincere about their ambitions. As public interest in environmental issues has shot up, so too have incidents of greenwashing. 

It’s therefore vital for brands to not only keep their sustainability promises but also provide solid evidence that they have done so. Pogliani’s term for this is “story-doing. What’s important is that everything you say and do is authentic – and that you can prove this to consumers.” 

He points to the sustainability efforts that Illy made and publicised long before the term was “fashionable”. As far back as 1999, it was experimenting with more water-efficient cultivation and processing techniques. More recently, it successfully applied to become a B Corporation. 

To achieve B Corp status – the widely respected mark of a progressive business – Illy had to let its management practices be “scrutinised under a magnifying glass”, according to Pogliani. He advises other brands not to wait until they have attained a quality standard before engaging with consumers on sustainability issues, perhaps for fear of appearing hypocritical. The best time to start is now, he argues. 

For its part, Illy publishes updates about its activities on its website and provides similar information on packaging and in its print and broadcast advertising. Despite the company’s efforts to be transparent, Pogliani ruefully notes the public reaction to its attainment of B Corp status in April. 

“Many consumers got in touch not only to congratulate us but also to say: ‘Oh, we never knew you were doing this,’” he says.

Two-way dialogue

This highlights the importance of perspective. A company-centric view makes an inaccurate assumption that a brand’s path towards sustainability is linear and that every consumer is equally interested in its progress. Illy saw a 39% increase in online sales during 2020. As welcome as this growth was, it inevitably introduced a large number of new customers who would have known next to nothing about the firm’s sustainability efforts. 

An acceptance that your brand is but one part of a complex, interconnected ecosystem will influence how you communicate with consumers. For one thing, your interactions will become more of a two-way dialogue. Social media has played an instrumental role in this trend. Pogliani reports that Illy has made a concerted effort in recent years to be more responsive on networks such as Twitter and Instagram.

This takes “a lot of work”, he says. “We’re trying to interact with people not only in our language, but also in English, French, German and Spanish. It requires considerable co-ordination across borders.” 

Ensuring that customer-facing employees on the front line are also prepared to engage effectively is similarly important. This can be a tall order for a firm that relies heavily on cafés, restaurants and other intermediaries, admits Pogliani, who adds that Illy must keep giving them the right information about its product to pass on to their customers. 

This illustrates that one brand cannot spread its sustainability message effectively in a vacuum – close collaboration between businesses on this issue makes sense. The corollary is that consumers need to be encouraged to consider their wider contribution to sustainability, not just the environmental footprint of their morning macchiatos. 

Pogliani is optimistic that this will happen. The increasing concern among consumers for sustainability issues is “very positive”, he says. “We have a responsibility to amplify this and become part of a growing movement.”