Sustainability 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 As long as marketing and sustainability efforts remain siloed on the basis of outdated organizational, budget and marketing practices, these brands continue to run the risk of failing to meet marketplace, business, and customer demands that are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.
On Monday, Apple launched a new ad outlining its environmental responsibility. In doing so, Tim Cook firmly placed his imprimatur of the future of Apple, going so far as to provide the voiceover for the ad himself just as Steve Jobs had done for an early version of ‘Here’s to the Crazy Ones’.
Tim Cook demonstrated his passion for addressing climate change at Apple’s shareholder meeting in February stating “If you want me to do things only for [return on investment] reasons you should get out of this stock.” Cook also publicly committed Apple to using 100% renewable energy in all of its facilities as soon as possible. To that end, Apple enlisted the services of former head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, in 2013 to oversee its sustainability efforts and, after an initial reversal, committed the company to using green materials in its computers under the EPEAT Standard. Now Greenpeace spokesman and ‘Clicking Green’ Report co-author, David Pomerantz, states, “Apple has done the most of any data center operator to make its part of the internet green,” and as of yesterday, Apple revamped the environmental page on its website to celebrate the energy savings of its iMacs and its carbon-free new campus clearly stating, “We believe climate change is real.”
Such bold statements by Apple do invite scrutiny, however, as they do for any brand. Questions remain about what happens behind its very private supply chain ecosystem, the sustainability practices of its Chinese manufacturer, Foxconn, and Apple’s philanthropic record. Meanwhile the ad itself is emblematic of this journey. More corporate in tone and imagery, it is less accessible than many of its popular product ads.
Moving forward, Apple has the opportunity to incorporate three strategies critical to social storytelling:
1. Brands must be the celebrant, not celebrity, of their customer community: Social technology is teaching us to be more human in our relatedness with stakeholders and that should be reflected in brand storytelling, especially when addressing issues as important to everyone’s future as climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. This involves a simple but important shift from focusing on what Apple is doing itself, to celebrating how that work is making a positive difference in the lives of others.
2. Customers want to coauthor the brand story: There is no shortage of passion for Apple’s revolutionary products but as the company seeks to position its brand around shared values, there will be a greater expectation from all stakeholders to play a greater role in shaping the brand’s sustainability commitment and story. This is great news for Apple as there is such an enormous reservoir of passion for the brand to tap into once it commits to balancing control with inclusion to achieve the common goal.
3. People rise to the conversation you create around them: Apple’s undeniable expertise, resources, and innovation capacity equip it to be a leader in the sustainability space. That privilege, however, is also a responsibility. As Apple further integrates environmental responsibility throughout its supply chain, product line, and retail marketing, the onus will fall on the company to shape the alternative energy and sustainability conversation beyond its own walls. Only when Apple actively extends the cultural conversation will it be positioned for true industry leadership.
Lisa Jackson writes on the Apple website that, “We have a long way to go but we are proud of our progress.” In the ad itself, Tim Cook repositions their core commitment to “better” as an ideal that hinges on values and actions that benefit people and the planet, rather than a product feature alone. If these are any indication of a new imperative at Apple, it is indeed cause to celebrate. Apple’s success has always been driven by its ability to hold itself to a higher standard, and if this is applied equally to sustainability, we can expect true leadership, innovation and impact in the years to come.
Under the leadership of Aaron Sherinian, VP of Communications & Public Relations at the UN Foundation and We First ’13 speaker, the UN Foundation has become known for its deep understanding of social storytelling and cross-industry collaboration. Here are four lessons from Aaron on how to inspire people around the globe to actively support your brand’s or nonprofit’s mission:
Build partnerships to scale impact For example, one of the UN Foundation’s major partnerships is with Walgreens, one of the most prominent pharmacies in the country. Walgreens is well known for making it easy to get flu shots at their stores and the UN Foundation has partnered with them to create the “Get a Shot, Give a Shot” campaign, which donates a flu shot to a child around the world who would not get access to the vaccine.
Co-create stories with your audience Aaron has found that the best ways to craft storytelling towards a specific goal or objective is to allow current advocates to tell their own stories. Instead of bouncing ideas around in a closed internal meeting, you need to get out and talk to the people actively participating in the cause. That’s how you’ll get honest, powerful, and shareable stories that will inspire others to get involved.
Engage different communities on different platforms Which medium is the best way to share brand stories? Is it pictures on Instagram? Or videos on YouTube, or articles on Facebook? To all this, Aaron simply says, “Yes.” Yes, to all these networks because in today’s interconnected online world, bringing a story to life across multiple platforms using many devices, is a necessity for storytelling of any size. The framing of your story will dictate how content is shared and how the message is brought to life on a specific platform.
Admit your mistakes The reluctance to admit when one is wrong, whether a small business or a Fortune 500 company, is difficult on any level. But when a brand makes a mistake today it is instantly available for all to see. That’s why it’s so important to admit when you’re wrong, in a transparent and public manner. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a key to success in this current climate driven by tech-savvy citizen activists.
As We First founder Simon Mainwaring often says, “Technology is teaching us to be human again” and the UN Foundation consistently shows us how collaborative digital storytelling and partnerships can power global impact.
Join us Oct 7-8 at the 2014 We First Brand Leadership Summit for two days of hands-on training on how to define, frame and share a brand story through social marketing that empowers your company to lead business, drive sales, and shape culture. Early-bird pricing ends May 31, 2014.
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