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3 Reasons Sustainability Isn’t Seen as a Priority, and a Host of Tools to Overcome Them

The two biggest disrupting forces transforming the market today are technology and sustainability, yet many marketers still don’t see sustainability as a priority. Sustainability has a business problem that needs to be addressed. Research by Ricardo Caceres, former Global Marketing Director of Sustainability at The Coca-Cola Company; and Omar Rodriguez-Vila, Professor at Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business, identified three core reasons:

  1. Lack of clarity on what defines a purpose-driven brand
  2. Sustainability is viewed as a distraction
  3. Lack of “how-to” tools and methods for implementation

This jam-packed session on day one of SB’17 Detroit provided hands-on exercises and great discussion that addressed these three challenges to integrating sustainability into the growth strategy of a brand.

Lack of clarity? Map it!

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To integrate sustainability into your brand, the panelists pointed out, you need to get clear on how. The trouble is, most people are unclear on what even defines a successful purpose-driven brand. Caceres and Rodriguez-Vila set out to answer this question. Their research has identified seven criteria that provide a framework for brand managers to successfully build a purpose-driven brand:

  1. Adopt a benefit to society as part of your market position - the brand has identified and integrated a societal benefit (either environment or community) into its value proposition/positioning statement.
  2. Link to a growth opportunity - the societal benefit is related to the growth strategy of the brand.
  3. Defined as success criteria - there are measurable goals associated with the societal benefit and their progress assessment is a part of the success criteria for evaluating brand performance.
  4. Resources committed for actions - the brand allocates resources to the development of programs that are specifically designed to advance the goals related to the societal benefits.
  5. Benefit is made public by the brand to its market - the societal benefit is acted upon and/or communicated in a way that is known to its customers/consumers.
  6. Duration of commitment - the expressed and realized commitment extends beyond one activation period and year.
  7. Recognized by customers - customers are aware and recognize the societal benefit as an attribute of the brand/product.

Use the following tool to map your brand against these categories to determine if it is competing on purpose.

Remember Sun Chips' ill-fated compostable chip bag? While the sustainability community got super excited, it ultimately failed since it was too noisy for non-LOHAS customers.

On the other hand, Nike nailed it with its “If You Let Me Play" campaign (1995). Why? The 4A Model (below) the speakers designed provides the answer. When a product undermines the brand’s key attributes, rather than enhances them, it fails.

Sustainability is viewed as a distraction? Build a marketing-savvy business case

When marketers are asked why they don’t focus on sustainability one of the most common answers is that it distracts from their core function. To win them over you need to build a “marketing” savvy business case by identifying the social purpose or benefit that strengthens the brand. This can be challenging. Many sustainability professionals use current CSR initiatives, brand values, customer interest and brand responsibilities as sources of ideas but Caceres and Rodriguez-Vila suggest instead integrating three sources into your analysis:

  • Externalities: Positive or negative impact your product or brand is having on society
  • Product characteristics: The functional heritage and/or meaning your brand has created over time.
  • Cultural tensions: The cultural environment and issues that (or can) captivate the passion of your customer community.

This should produce a handful of ideas. To narrow it down, determine if the societal attribute enhances the competitiveness of current offerings and the core attributes of the brand. To truly understanding the impact of a particular attribute requires research. While Caceres and Rodriguez-Vila’s experiment with almost 11,000 consumers across 14 countries and four product categories demonstrated that societal attributes have a positive effect on brand attributes, the effects varied by category and country. Get clear: What you choose and how you engage is key.

Lack of “how-to” tools and methods for implementation? The Practice of Purpose Project

Caceres and Rodriguez-Vila are continuing their work. Through the Practice of Purpose Project, a collaboration between Sustainable Brands, Caceres and Rodriguez-Vila, and 18 brands across industries, they aim to develop clear how-to tools to jumpstart the journey to successfully embedding sustainability as a marketing priority. The project is still seeking partners.


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