Three Reality Checks for Brands Making Headway on Sustainability

This blog was first posted by Sustainable Brands and Dragon Rouge

Supermarket shelves, the high street and online retail are burgeoning with brands making a lot of noise about one or other aspect of sustainability. Be it water conservation, reduced packaging, organic, Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance ingredients, Better Cotton, recycled polyester or the latest in electric vehicle R&D – it’s hard to go shopping today and not come across at least one of the above.

Seeing so many brands considering and leveraging the complexities of sustainability has been a positive force for good in the marketing space. Recently we heard the CEO of the Marketing Society remark on the rapid spread of sustainability thinking in branding. He mentioned a manifesto they had written for marketing in 2005, which didn't mention the word sustainable or sustainability, yet now it's an escalating hot topic amongst their members and high up their agenda (the event we were at was all about making sustainability 'sexy').

During Dragon Rouge's

biannual seminar on sustainability and brands last month, we spent a couple of hours with a group of brand managers, marketers and sustainability professionals, looking at 25 brands and how they are using sustainability challenges to create positive impact. With sustainability targets snapping at business’s heels (reducing CO2 emissions, for example, by 50% by 2025 in the UK and globally by 80-90% by 2050), we found an array of diverse responses across a range of brands.

We'll be looking at the three brand initiatives that sparked the most discussion and enabled us to think through a few reality checks for what works well and less well in today’s marketing world, where brands compete on sustainability, with the winners reaping the benefits of consumer loyalty and an enhanced reputation.

First up is Whole Foods. They made an announcement in April that from Earth Day they would no longer be selling unsustainable fish. Great news. However, it begged an important question - what fish were they selling before? It turned out that those in the room had all assumed that Whole Foods would source the vast majority of its produce sustainably anyway, and we felt a bit let down that this was not the case. A very positive message had become negative due to consumers’ built-in expectations of the brand and what we believed it stood for.

Reality check #1: Understanding what your consumers assume your brand already does on sustainability is critical when thinking through the message you want to get across. Telling them something they think you already do is unlikely to have much impact.

Next up is Method’s range of cleaning products. From the start their mission was to combine unique, excellent design and functionality with ecologically sound formulations. The seminar group who looked into their story further found they had been up-cycling the plastic waste from the ‘islands of trash’ in the ocean, to create a range of packaging. Some may say that’s clever PR, which of course it is, but it’s also very cleverly using a sustainability challenge/hazard (i.e. reams and reams of plastic waste in our oceans) to drive packaging innovation – and yes, the innovation also has a lovely story to tell that’s far more interesting than ‘rPET’.

Reality check #2: If you start with sustainability as your stimulus for innovation, your brand can tell a strong, genuine story of positive impact once it’s on the shelf.

The last example is BMWi’s two-page advert found in April’s edition of Wallpapermagazine. The text reads:

“BMWi provides intelligent applications and services that improve the way you get around town – inside and outside the car. Looking for the talk-of-the-town dining experience or the nearest wifi hotspot? No problem. Need a parking space for half a day? We can help. And if you’re a keen pedestrian but crave the occasional drive, we have the right car and we’ll share it with you. More innovative services are coming soon in a growing number of cities. Because we’ve only just begun. More:”

Some mistook this advert for ‘another EV coming to a salesroom near you,’ but digging a little deeper, this advert is a teaser for something that would radically alter BMW’s traditional business model, and if done well, could be a shining example of a sustainable business model. Now that they are considering mobility, rather than the historic model of manufacturing and sales, and targeting pedestrians as well as drivers, indicates a far more radical and systemic approach to finding solutions and ways of doing business in the not-so-distant future. It highlights the sort of brand-led innovation we need to transform to sustainable behaviours and lifestyles. And of course mobility, the BMW way, is likely to be far more aspirational than a local government-led initiative promoting sustainable mobility, for example.

Reality check #3: Generating ideas today for brand-led, sustainable business models of the (not-so-distant) future could help your brand secure a long-term competitive edge and be resilient to changing markets.

We ended the seminar on a bit of a high, uplifted by the breadth and depth of brand engagement on sustainability today, but with the realisation that it’s really tough out there. Consumers expect more and more from brands. Havas’ meaningful brands index talks about the pioneering brands being those that are ‘making commitments not promises’ and EuroRSCG’s Prosumers report reminds us that most 18-25 year olds believe “the things I consume have more power to change things than the people I vote for.”

We’re making it our business to help brands think through what they can be doing - from incremental, quick-wins to new product innovation and the exciting world of more radical, business model innovation – if you let your brand values and sustainability lead you, the win-win innovations will follow.

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