Over the past year, we conducted an extensive research project engaging over 100 sustainability leaders from around the world to understand how they thought sustainable business would evolve after the pandemic. Here’s how they think we can build back better brands.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly shaken the world economy and changed the way we do business. We have never been so exposed, never so interconnected. We are facing a crucial set of decision points as we begin the journey of ‘building back’: How do we accelerate sustainable development and sustainable business? What do we need to do differently? Where aren’t we doing enough? How can we overcome the barriers? How can we build back better brands?
Over the past year, we conducted an extensive research project engaging in over 100 conversations with sustainability leaders from Asia, the US and Europe (including Christopher Miller, Head of Global Activism Strategy at Ben & Jerry’s; Andrew Winston, author, advisor and speaker; Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future; Dave Stangis, founder & CEO of 21C IMPACT and former Chief Sustainability Officer at Campbell Soup Company, among many others — find more details on our website). We wanted to understand how they thought sustainable business would evolve after the pandemic.
To help put a robust structure and framework of reference behind this challenge, we used the SB Brand Transformation RoadmapSM (BTR). We applied the Roadmap to the entire series of conversations and organized all the fresh insights we collected under its five key pillars: Purpose, Brand Influence, Supply Chain, Innovation and Governance. We then engaged in serious reflection and synthesis in order to give an overall post-pandemic picture for each of these five dimensions. We also made sure to note the maturity levels of the ideas involved by distinguishing between low/medium maturity (levels 1-3) and high maturity (levels 4-5). This system of levels 1-5 reflects the journey from business-as-usual (level 1) to becoming a truly sustainable brand (level 5), as per the BTR.
Let’s take a minute to review each pillar briefly (with the full report available here):
Purpose, the first dimension, might sound obvious at first glance, but it definitely isn’t. While we are currently living in the ‘era’ of purpose and many companies are working on establishing a powerful and well-phrased purpose, relatively few have been able to concretely bring purpose to life and successfully embed it into full-blown strategies and action plans. It is the era of purpose, but the term is often misused or not applied comprehensively; and it is therefore advisable to go back and have a deeper look.
At Quiero, jointly with Sustainable Brands™ and its global network, we believe Purpose should lead all the way to a clear delivery point. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming an endless journey of aspiration without enough action — which ultimately fails to engage people (both internally and externally) and create meaningful impact. As Sally Uren told us: “Brands and businesses need to ask themselves how to manifest their purpose declaration: How can they be socially useful and help to build a resilient environment?”
What is really needed is an actionable and transformational promise that meaningfully connects with people, inspires real engagement and thus constitutes a true people mobilizer. Furthermore, Purpose need not be static — just like the organization it belongs to, it is subject to continuous improvement. Purpose should be reassessed periodically, in parallel with society’s changing demands. It is fully alive and keeps evolving over time.
The second dimension is Brand Influence — which is fundamentally based on new forms of leadership seeking to activate customers and other stakeholders in broad systemic changes in any given industry, and with respect to the economy as a whole. Through Brand Influence new powerful relations with customers and other stakeholders are established on the basis of a set of authentic brand values. In this sense, we need to go beyond the mere definition of people as consumers, extend the area of focus beyond transactions and consumption, consider what sustainable lifestyles and behaviors mean to them, and magnify their roles as citizens and change agents. Selling a product to a consumer is no longer enough — we now need brands that can speak to and engage with citizens at deeper levels. As Christopher Miller said: “We want to help our fans take action and become a part of social movements.”
The third dimension is Innovation, which can achieve its best when catalyzed by the principles of sustainability and regeneration. The key to progressing further in this dimension lies in advancing both well-established methodologies (such as life cycle assessment) and new, bottom-up experimentation powered by next generations of data and technology. Life cycle assessment can highlight the areas in which innovation is needed the most, playing a critical role in refocusing companies’ efforts in line with sustainability- and regeneration-driven strategies. New data and technologies are challenging traditional innovation processes and forcing companies to involve key stakeholders much more and much sooner. Finally, sustainable Innovation will bring circularity and other new operating models that will fundamentally transform the way we do business. “To be more innovative, companies need to think more dynamically about circular systems and more expansively about the idea of value,” says Chris Grantham, Executive Director of Circular Economy at IDEO.
The fourth dimension is Supply Chain, which works as a ‘multiplier’ on many levels. A sustainable Supply Chain distinguishes itself first of all for its end-to-end transparency. It comes with a full understanding of all social and environmental impacts generated along the value chain of a given company’s products and services. It also seeks ways to improve by measuring progress and identifying needed actions with increased rigor and accuracy. Ideally, that means a Supply Chain that rethinks and redefines itself, establishing new dialogues and alliances with its suppliers (tier 1, 2, 3, …), focusing on human value creation and addressing socio-economic inequalities. The maximum level of maturity in this dimension is reached with regeneration, where we successfully move from value extraction to value creation in every sense. As Juan José Freijo, VP of Global Head of Sustainability and EMEA Government Affairs at Brambles, said: “Regeneration is a powerful solution to the challenges we can face along the value chain… To me regeneration is inevitable, because an impact-reduction strategy is no longer sufficient.”
The fifth and final dimension is Governance — which, experts tell us, can no longer be detached or passive when it comes to a company’s impacts on the world or its greatest challenges. We are in urgent need of new models of Governance — ones that truly support sustainability and regeneration, capable of empowering influential sustainability leaders inside and outside the company while ensuring cohesion with the company’s purpose. As Dave Stangis asserted: “Taking positions is uncomfortable: Think about what resonates with your brands and do not fear to stand up for things that are good for business and society — do stand up.”
New Governance models need to guide us through the full integration of sustainability and business strategy and goals, not merely in reporting. A company’s performance should be measured and evaluated with integrated, multicapital approaches; and financial markets need to become excellent at recognizing and rewarding companies, accordingly.
A company or brand journey towards sustainability is certainly not easy — seeing as significant improvements are generally needed in multiple dimensions at the same time, as demonstrated above. However, the set of changes described above is indeed necessary and experts predict it will play a big role in determining our chances of surviving the future. It is therefore not surprising to see new emerging models in all five dimensions. In upcoming SBMadrid21 events, we will take a deep dive into each dimension together with our local and international partners — including B Lab, Fundación SERES, NESSI, Impact Hub and AECOC — and review practical examples of how to successfully advance towards the North Stars identified in our research.