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10 Forces That Are Bringing Sustainability and Marketing Closer Together (Finally!)

At Sustainable Brands, we believe — with a level of passion typical of unabashed optimists — that sustainability can be one of the few most valuable drivers of innovation for many years to come, provided business executives and other key players understand how to leverage the key role of brands and marketing in shaping that desirable, flourishing future. I often hear skeptical commentary claiming that “Sustainability can’t scale enough, because Marketing is not cooperating” or that “Marketing really does want to help, but, boy, Sustainability’s demands and specifications are simply too much.” Well, realistically, both of those are indeed often the case … until one day, they are not anymore. What gives me confidence that this transition toward properly aligning Sustainability and Marketing is achievable? Many things — but lately, 10 specific forces illustrated by the straightforward examples below:

1. The force of holonomic thinking — a beautiful manifestation of true systems thinking

In their new book, Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter, authors Simon and Maria Moraes Robinson describe a way of thinking that teaches business leaders how to adapt in truly new, pragmatic, big-picture ways. To fully know the world, nature, people and phenomena, the book argues, we need not shy away from using all four ways of knowing — thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition. By expanding business mindsets accordingly, we can come to realize that brands are not a thing to be fully known, pinned down in a paragraph, or controlled. Brands are instead a complex journey, an odyssey, to be experienced and guided indirectly, through other, large forces such as peace, love, truth, right-action and non-violence. When a shift occurs from thinking about economic brand value to thinking about holonomic brand value, a bigger number of strong, fundamental natural forces can be leveraged.

2. The force of smart research studies charting new territories of intelligence

Thinking, feeling, sensing and intuition are at their best when complemented and informed by on-the-ground data informing executives of the current realities of the systems in which they operate. It used to be the case that consumer surveys and other types of market research around sustainability told us almost nothing we didn’t already know intuitively. Well, the times seem to be changing: New research projects I look forward to exploring in only a few short weeks include fresh insights around the Relationship Age, Generation Z, and the public’s reactions to the sharing economy, circular business models, and net positive models, by Wolff Olins, Salt, Dragon Rouge, and Forum for the Future. And then there is Matthew Yeomans, whose new dataset examines online communication strategies of the 17 fastest-moving consumer goods multinationals and 162 of their best-performing and most important individual brands, boasting 586 million Facebook fans in total.

3. The force of the circular economy, especially when the business case for it is loud and clear

I am personally thrilled at the prospect of meeting Tom Francken, Chief Financial Officer of European carpet manufacturer Desso. I will meet Tom in just a few short weeks, and, as a huge fan of the ideas behind circular business models, I can’t wait to hear details around the evolution of respective ROI projections. When a major CFO walks into a community of sustainability and marketing nerds, you know something’s up.

Designing for Circularity-Friendly Behaviors

Join us as leaders from BBMG and REI examine how leading brands are innovating and scaling circular models to attract new fans and earn customer loyalty, all while eliminating waste — Thurs, May 9, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

Many corporate leaders are now fully aware of the multiple benefits good, brand-aligned storytelling can bring. That said, storytelling is still ‘just talking the talk’ — it can get that much better when supported by skillful “storydoing,” a curious but to-the-point term coined by Ty Montague, author of True Story: How to Combine Story and Action to Transform Your Business. Brand strategy and corporate communications can be opened up to new, previously uncharted fertile territories, when one considers this new lens of expressing brand values through actions.

5. The force of being aware that, deep down inside, you want to have your pie and eat it, too — and that this is an OK impulse to have

In unambiguous, simple terms that the Sustainable Brands community is all too familiar with, sustainability teams want to save the world, in rigorous, science-based, data-driven ways. Of course, surely this line of work must be founded in tons of data analysis, life cycle assessment and the latest system modelling techniques… zzz. Exactly — lovely but boring stuff. Marketers often feel limited by those wonky demands, warnings and uncertain statements coming from their sustainability colleagues. Thankfully, pockets of new, combined Sustainability-Marketing thinking are starting to appear in the corporate world. Beyond the Unilevers and Follow the Frogs of the world, I am quite excited seeing effective action from brands such as Heineken, Pret a Manger, Sky, Kimberly-Clark and quite a few others.

6. The force of well-targeted employee engagement, especially when an initiative engages over 100,000 employees 6 months after its inception

Matter to a Million, a five-year global partnership between HP and nonprofit micro-lending platform Kiva, has to be my favorite employee engagement story of the last few years, if not more. What HP and Kiva have been able to achieve together, in just several months, is nothing short of remarkable: more than 100,000 HP employees lending over $4.2 million, in $25 increments, to intriguing entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds all over the world. The program is clearly striking a chord with HP’s global employee base by providing an easy, entertaining and rewarding way to invest in meaningful projects. And this is just the beginning — with 4.5 years of the program yet to unfold.

7. The force of a new, purpose-aligned set of corporate values being adopted by brands of all sizes and industries

It is no secret that financial giant Barclays, like so many other major global banks, hasn’t had the easiest time reputation-wise in the last several years. One thing I am really intrigued by in this bank’s case, however, is that it is taking some very specific actions to address root causes rather than surface symptoms. In 2013, for the first time, 150 senior managers at Barclays had an element of their compensation linked to what the company leadership refers to as the "five Cs" — customers, colleagues, citizenship, conduct and company. Starting this year, these five Cs will be taken into account when evaluating the performance of all 140,000 employees globally.

8. The force of awkward-looking fruits and vegetables fighting back against a rigged game

Just watch this, it explains it all:

After 80 years in business as an upstream B2B player, Arrow Electronics has just gone through a major rebranding effort and launched a unique campaign celebrating what the company calls “Heroes of Innovation.” Why brand an “anonymous” supply chain company, one might ask? And why now? And what does this new direction for Arrow have to do with sustainability and marketing? It’s a fascinating, truly one-of-a-kind story that I invite you to explore. Here is a good place to start:

10. And last but certainly not least, the mighty force of building movements for behavior change at scale

What happens when you put the creative minds behind Project Wild Thing, Good Gym and Project Everyone together in a room? Remember that Project Wild Thing produced an influential “Marketing Director for Nature” while encouraging children and adults alike to go and frolic outdoors; Good Gym, which gets people to exercise while running errands for lonely elderly folks, is spreading fast around the UK; and Project Everyone… well, Project Everyone simply aims to put the revised 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals into the hands of 7 billion people in 7 days next autumn. Yup!

I hope you agree with me there are reasons to be hopeful that a new generation of movement-makers is taking over and aligning change with both collective consciousness and individual desires. What if you added the potential of massively influential mainstream brands to this mix, such as the just-launched, multi-company effort known as Collectively? What If, indeed …? Well, that is what the Sustainable Brands community has been asking, and answering, all year under the theme “Reimagine, Redesign, Regenerate.” Our next stop: SB London 2014, November 3-5, with everyone referenced here and more on hand to share, inspire, learn and further help build a global community of unabashedly optimistic, pragmatic changemakers.


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