The Sustainability Imperative and What It Means for the Future of Your Brand

Sustainable Brands 2014Sustainability is an ever-evolving conversation that is becoming increasingly sophisticated in the demands it places on brands. For instance, several decades ago it was considered a competitive advantage to be called a green company, yet after more and more brands co-opted this message it lost its meaning.

Today, with so many large corporations making significant commitments, it is simply not enough to “be sustainable” and limiting sustainability to encompass only environmental issues is a symptom of leadership that has not recognized the larger role customers now expect business to play. Leadership must now embrace an expanded definition of sustainability that includes social, economic, moral, ethical, and environmental sustainability, and reframe business leadership in terms of global stewardship for positive social change.

The theme of this year’s Sustainable Brands conference, ‘Reimagine, Redesign, Regenerate’ is spot on- an expanded meaning of sustainability is rapidly becoming the price of entry for doing business and must inform all internal and external aspects of your company. In order to position your company well ahead of competitors and at the heart of what the marketplace will reward, brands must take on the following four challenges:

Unite the CMO and CSO:  Too many brands waste their marketing budgets through fractured messaging that bifurcates their communities and dilutes brand awareness and affinity. The result is confused customers who are not equipped to share the brand’s story using their own social media channels. As long as marketing and sustainability efforts remain siloed on the basis of outdated organizational, budget and marketing practices, these brands continue to run the risk of failing to meet marketplace, business, and customer demands that are the key to their survival. Instead, you must define your brand in a way that integrates your sustainability commitment, frame that story in terms of the benefit to your customers, and tell that story simply and consistently. For a great example, see Unilever’s Project Sunlight, demonstrating the integrity of their storytelling through both the parent company and its product brands.

Lead the Conversation: In a marketplace of parity technology and “Me Too” marketing, the safest place for a brand is to take a strong point of view on sustainability and drive the conversation rather than reacting to consumer push-back. Any alternative leaves your brand lost in the noise and facing a customer community that questions the authenticity of your stated commitments and values. With this in mind, marketing and sustainability leads must align to articulate a distinct sustainability point of view, start conversations others wouldn’t, hold the brand to a higher standard, and operate with transparency by volunteering areas of improvement. For examples see the #CVSQuits initiative, Chipotle’s videos and apps around its mission for ‘Food Integrity’, Target’s new Sustainable Product Standard, and Patagonia’s iconic ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ campaign.

Activate Employees: Many executives assume that employees would rather not be burdened with sustainability practices at work or at home. Not only does this mean that the core values of the brand are not truly reflected in the culture and daily practices of the company (further diluting brand integrity), but it also robs employees of the very meaning they seek to incorporate in their lives. According to the Society for Human Resources Management, in companies with strong sustainability programs, morale was 55% better, public image was 43% stronger, and employee loyalty was 38% higher. It’s no surprise that the most innovative brands have already figured out that internal storytelling and employee activation are just as important as traditional external consumer-focused efforts, and PwC’s new Keys to Corporate Responsibility Employee Engagement report gives some great insight into creating a culture of engagement.

Demonstrate Real Impact: As the sustainability imperative evolves and expands, so will its success metrics and this presents yet another opportunity for companies to demonstrate leadership, accountability, and innovation. Whether it’s contributing to a new set of industry standards (like The Sustainable Apparel Coalition with leadership from Nike, Walmart, Patagonia, and Target), taking steps to quantify and improve yearly environmental impact (see Puma’s Environmental Profit & Loss Account), or redefining how a company can show bottom-line benefits to shareholders (Unilever’s 2012 Progress Report), now is the time to step up and not only ensure your company’s own success but also provide lessons for the corporate world at large.

It is clear that brands cannot survive in societies that fail, and the most iconic brands of the future will be those that drive the most meaningful and holistic social change. That’s why we expect this year’s annual Sustainable Brands conference, June 2-5 in San Diego, to be the best and most sophisticated yet. With 160 speakers from companies like Starbucks, Unilever, and Intel, sharing insights across the four areas mentioned above and many more, we can all now tap into a solid foundation of both strategies and tools to achieve greater success for our companies and the planet.

 Written by Dana Byerlee, VP of Marketing at We First.