SB'24 San Diego is open for registration. Register early and save!

Behavior Change
Brand-Led Culture Change:
A Primer on the Holy Grail of Today’s Purpose-Driven Brands

On day one of Brand-Led Culture Change, brands, retailers, trend watchers and behavioral and cultural design experts examined the role and power of consumer-facing companies to create the socially and environmentally prosperous world we want to live in.

Why brand-led culture change now?

We could all learn a lot from the common dung beetle. In setting the context for Sustainable Brands™Brand-Led Culture Change event this week, Etienne White, Lead of SB’s CMO Sustainability Accelerator, pointed to Earth’s original recyclers — who literally take the waste of others and disperse it. And as they disperse it, they fertilize the ground, spreading vital nutrients to feed the soil as they go. “Dung beetles are resourceful,” she says. “They’re taking on a big challenge; much bigger than them. And they are not doing this work because the sky is falling down and there is widespread panic — they are doing this, because this is their purpose.” She hoped the event would showcase more brands acting like the dung beetle.

On hand for day one’s plenary session to illustrate how and why brands are well placed to initiate culture change were Jason Burnham, Founder of Culture Design, Camilla Van Grembergen, Trend Analyst at TrendWatching; Sille Krukow, Nudge & Behavioral Design Expert at Krukow Behavioral Design; and Ruth Harper, Chief Sustainability and Communications Officer at ManpowerGroup.

Burnham highlighted the need for brands to ‘show up’ during uncertain times to support the communities they serve — something that can build trust and empathetic relationships between companies and customers, and helps brands thrive. “Successful culture change requires an understanding of current cultural beliefs, values, stigmas, and sensibilities, and meeting people where they are in their learning journey,” he said. His advice: Focus on identifying those actors and stakeholders you can leverage for coalition building and activism (social and political) as well as change management. “[Your beliefs as a brand] are shaped by the relationships you cultivate, and the experiences people have with your organization, and your products and services.”

Van Grembergen reinforced the need for brands to track consumer trends to enable them to play a key role in creating a more equitable society. Consumers are “lavishing love and attention” on brands that are moving beyond words turning social pledges into action. In a period of high inflation, UK retailer Iceland has started to offer over-60s a 10 percent discount on food on Tuesdays to help cushion the blow. “It’s a sub-trend, known as First Responders. This is about brands leveraging their resources to act fast in a moment of crisis,” she said.

Harper gave a moving presentation explaining how ManpowerGroup has reacted since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. The company places 2 million people into work every year; and it has been using its huge global network to provide job opportunities, financial resources and basic support to Ukrainian refugees.

The audience were then treated to a raft of great examples from Krukow, exploring how brands can make it easier for consumers to make better decisions in their purchasing and everyday activities. As she explained, human behavior is driven by two systems in the brain: “System 1 happens subconsciously, as a reaction to the design of our surroundings. System 2 is when we’re able to translate knowledge and information into a change of habit.”

If we want to change consumer habits fast, brands must hack into System 1 behavior and alter our surroundings in ways that make it easy to opt for more sustainable decisions and behaviors.

The power of product labels to drive consumer behavior

Speaking of changing behavior, the next session explored the latest in the ongoing debate about the value of consumer product labeling.

Whitney Dailey, EVP for Purpose at Allison+Partners, set the tone: “The demand for information on packaging has certainly existed for a while. So, there’s a lot of head wind in this space. But there’s also work to be done,” she said.

According to Flora Ekpe-Idang, Senior Marketing Manager at Target, the last two years have created even more demand for labeling — a point echoed in SB Brands for Good’s latest Socio-Cultural Trend Tracker research, which examined product labels as a key influencer of consumer purchasing decisions. “With the pandemic and during everything that's happened in our political society, more people want to shop their values,” she said.

Adam Werbach, Global Lead for Sustainable Shopping at Amazon, agreed. Labeling has gone from fad to trend to movement to a paradigm shift, he said.

“We’re at a generation of time where folks have been identifying more sustainable values in products, and now customers expect them. For example, people just walk into a Whole Foods store and they expect every product to either have a label or be part of the restricted substance list. The challenge now is to take things to the next level — to ensure labels and certifications do not just have the environment in mind, but also social issues. There are changes to be made as we move into a more digital world — a world where customers can have more transparency instantly and can go all the way back to the supply chain to make sure there’s no poor labor practices [involved in products].”

Cashion East, Director of Analytics at Higg, added that he could see a time in the not-too-distant future where sustainable product labels moved from being a voluntary to mandatory entity. “We’re at an inflection point…and we’re starting to see rapid changes in the regulatory environment,” he said.

Dailey made the point that, increasingly, labels are not the reserve of big brands. As the B Corp movement has shown, small brands are seeing the value of having certification attached to their products, services and stores. “It’s been fun to see this evolution and to see how big and small organizations are leveraging labeling consumer experiences to make sure they’re able to provide the information consumers are seeking.

East warned of the dangers associated with labels in fueling greenwashing — as people start to dig into the data behind labels, it is putting more pressure on labeling schemes, he said. “Good product labeling has to have a dynamic, evolutionary piece built into it; because as more information is available, brands are disclosing more to consumers, and regulatory bodies are starting to advance legislation, the details become very, very important.”

It is a challenge Ekpe-Idang is all too aware of as it becomes easier for consumers to look up information on the web. “You can easily follow the trail and find out where things are sourced. Who is the person behind it? How is it helping a community?” Amazon’s design philosophy when it comes to labeling is “progressive disclosure,” Werbach says. “We show customers as little as they need to make the decision they want, but give them a chance to go all the way back [to find out more].”

Crucially, labeling needs to be more than just “slapping something on a product and expecting consumers to understand the nuances of what that means,” as East put it — it really must be part of a broader program of storytelling and ensuring the verification and validation of labels and certification is sound. “It’s important to acknowledge the complexity of labels. It may take some time to bring everybody together and communicate the nuances of what you’re saying. A strong verification program is really important for building trust.”