I believe that most firms in the world have made commitments to environmental programs as a higher purpose. Their motivation is to inspire employees, do the right thing for the planet, reduce costs and appeal to customers thereby engendering admiration, respect and a sense of shared values. All of this leads to a brand-consumer relationship based on more than functional benefits.

BrandJapan conducts an annual survey measuring the strength and profile of 1000 brands, and this year added a question involving whether the brand is “concerned with environmental issues.” The response to this question confirms my suspicion that few brands get recognition of their environmental efforts, even though most brands have significant environmental programs. Why? How can brands with strong environmental goals and programs get customer credit?

To answer those questions let’s first look at those few brands that have gotten credit. Five brands stand above the other 1000 in terms of getting credit for environmental programs: Toyota, with a scale rating of 44.6% (representing the percentage of 650 or so respondents that believed the brand was concerned with environmental issues), Suntory at 32.5%, Prius at 30%, Muji at 29.8% and Honda at 27.2%. Only 20 other brands rated above 20%, and only 75 were ranked above 10%. The relative values are valid indicators even though the numbers themselves are hard to interpret as they only represent a sample of the 17 questions used to measure brand equity. But looking at these relative numbers, how did these brands break out?

Toyota has as a top corporate mission that focuses on environmentally sustainable solutions in everything they do, in every vehicle they make.

And they really mean it. They have developed a host of programs in logistics, dealer operations and more. But it’s been the cars that have carried the flag, particularly the Prius, the dominate hybrid car for nearly two decades. In fact, the brand Prius is number three in terms of environmental reputation despite the fact that it is a product brand. Most relevant in this year’s survey was Toyota’s introduction last year of the Mirai, a fuel cell car that emits only water vapor, to great fanfare.

Suntory is remarkable give that it is a beverage company.

Its corporate philosophy is “In Harmony with People and Nature.” And though it has many social programs, its flagship is its many faceted programs to conserve and protect the purity of water sources from promoting forests to all kinds of conservation efforts in Japan. The water focus of Suntory has a rich heritage and has become well known. The “Bringing Water to Life” tagline is attached to all the ads in what is an extensive communication budget over many product forms including whiskey, beer, wine and soft drinks.

Muji is to retailing in Japan what Patagonia is to clothing in the US.

It is all about nature, the environment and being the opposite of glitzy and pretentious. They have created two parks in the wilderness that are as undisturbed as possible. Their environmental reputation, however, is based largely on their product lines that are designed for simplicity. The designs are starkly functional, in part to conserve resources and reduce waste. There is an umbrella feeling of calmness and being in nature when you visit a Muji store, browse their products or even think about the brand.

Honda has had an environmental vision for decades with a theme “Blue Skies for Our Children.”

Toward that end, they have achieved over 90% recyclable cars. Its reputation, however, is largely driven by their vehicles supported by legendary technological innovation. Their quest for cleaner air and a reduction in CO2 emission is visibly expressed in their well-received hybrid technology, offered under multiple model brands including the Accord, the Civic and a variety of models using alternative fuel sources.

So what do these brands have in common?

A higher purpose: This purpose is neither superficial nor recent. It is baked into their heritage and DNA going back many decades, and is a serious priority supported by real substance.

A close tie to their product lines: Toyota’s Mirai fuel cell car, Muji’s simplicity of product design, Honda’s vehicle technology, Uniqlo’s recycling, Panasonics energy saving products, and Nissan’s elective cars all create environmental credit directly linked to their products. Even in the case of the Suntory brand there is a logical link with the water component of the product instead of the product per se. Certainly there are other routes to gaining visibility for programs, but the BrandJapan’s results suggest that the credibility of a related product line is helpful. It means you care and you are knowledgeable.

Visibility of the efforts: These brands have all brought their environmental efforts to life through their product line and associated innovation. Their corporate brand vision of environmental responsibility is actively communicated over time. Brand building around the corporate brand enhances that visibility.