Creating Sustainable Value. Building Brands for the Long Run.
It is easy to get blinded by sustainability. We all need more of it and consumers expect brands to take action. But sustainability is an abstract concept. It includes everything from recycled plastic to corporate diversity and charitable activities. However, sustainability is also more than the measurable initiatives related to CO2 or gender balances.
Contributing to a circular economy and triple bottom lines are important for the future of your business and our world. But, in our experience, it is not enough for long-lasting brand building. Not alone, at least. And not in its current interpretation.
Strong brands are still first and foremost built on a distinct and desirable promise that creates a strong emotional link with – and sustainable value for – consumers. Environmental sustainability is rightly so an increasing part of the equation, but rarely the total factor.
Mindset vs. Initiatives
The best brand promises are a catalyst for change. They hold the power to spark progress and use business as a force of good. They are relevant, but they also need to be differentiated to grab consumers’ attention and stand the test of time.
Undoubtedly, measurable sustainability initiatives should be part of the execution of a progressive brand promise. But reducing CO2 levels and substituting materials is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Hopefully such initiatives will be a mere hygiene factor in the near future.
A great and popular example of sustainable brand building is Patagonia. Yet the brand isn’t built on reducing plastics or making recycled fleece jackets alone. Those are simply great and relevant initiatives of a much bigger brand promise.
The Patagonia brand is a result of a firm belief and set of values that inspire us all to seize the opportunities life brings us. Something that is relevant when protecting nature or changing the apparel industry from within, but equally relevant when envisioning the best possible corporate culture.
In his book “Let my people go surfing”, CEO of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, talks about creating a social environment that is sustainable. People should work to live and not live to work. They make a difference for their own “family” and inspire others to do the same. While repairing your old clothes and reducing their CO2 levels.
Just like the best of us, Patagonia isn’t perfect. But they are transparent and honest about their shortcomings. Thereby forging stronger emotional connections with their customers and letting them – and their own team – know that there is still work to be done out there. Still, opportunities to be seized. Still lives to be lived to the fullest. And still fleece jackets to be sold.
Same Old in a New World
Businesses need to take the lead on the sustainable transition to remain relevant to the next generation of consumers. To do just that, more and more companies pledge themselves to work with organisations like B-Corp, Ellen McArthur Foundation or Plastic Change. Organisations that inspire collective change and effort.
Businesses also need, however, to make the sustainable initiatives relevant to consumers’ lives and create an emotional desirability that goes beyond the bad conscience.
For agencies, that means that the old days of fame-campaigns and glossy makeovers will soon be obsolete. We need to ask tougher questions to our clients and ask for more from our team to help define and design distinct and desirable brands that live up to demanding consumers, purpose-driven employees, disruptive market conditions and our own moral duties.
Companies can and should start by reducing, reusing, repurposing and recycling. That’s good behaviour, but not necessarily part of your brand story. The promise to consumers should think, plan and act beyond the tactical initiatives if it is to define the foundation of a truly sustainable brand.