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Marketing and Comms
Cultural Intelligence, Collaboration Keys to Changing the Sustainability Conversation

Day one of Sustainable Brands’ Brand-Led Culture Change event was filled with rich discussions on the power of partnerships, hits and misses in brand communication, and the power of art to open hearts and minds.

Framing ESG efforts in polarizing times: Are you hunting or hibernating?

Image credit: Karolina Grabowska

In today’s current political and regulatory environment, many brands have become more reluctant to publicly communicate about sustainability or ESG progress and commitments.

“In this time of ‘Purpose Paralysis,’ it can feel as if you are wading into bear country when communicating about purpose and social impact. As a brand — are you hunting or hibernating?” said Freya Williams, Chief Strategy Officer at Revolt and author of Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses (Harper Collins Leadership, 2022). “Over the course of the last 12 months, there has been a bit of an ESG backlash. The current advice has been sort of narrow — either be silent or stay the course. We thought we needed more nuanced guidance.”

Williams and Jack Farrelly, Revolt’s Executive Strategy Director, shared research findings among US consumers that ranked 50 different societal issues from least to most polarizing: Climate change, gender inequality, and race relations and racism were among the top. Societal issues with a more unifying effect (or what they call “teddy bear” issues) included unemployment and job security, fair wages, care for the elderly, and the decline of family relationships.

Williams and Farrelly stressed two critical decisions for brands to make —

  1. Which issues should I choose to support as a brand?

  2. Which should I communicate about publicly?

In the last half of the session, participants workshopped approaches to specific issues such as climate change and access to education. For each issue, five different frames were provided; and each group discussed how they would rank the statements from least polarizing to most and why. In the end, the more centrist frames were often the least polarizing and the most effective in getting the intended message across.

Partnerships driving sustainable shifts across industries

Image credit: Health Care Without Harm

Partnerships can wield transformative power to drive tangible impacts and ignite virtuous cycles of behavioral change across various stakeholders. This workshop delved into case studies from Diageo, ReFED, Eneration, CARE, Aveda and Copia showcasing the ripple effects of collaboration across diverse industries and illustrating the potential of collaboration in generating both immediate impact and enduring positive change.

Jennifer MacArthur, Director and Executive Producer of Family Tree — a film that showcases two African American forest-owning families from North Carolina whose history intertwines with the origins of the timber industry — discussed the need for the media to tackle larger issues such as climate change beyond the confines of conventional activism. To do that, partnerships — such as the work the production did with the Arbor Day Foundation — can help engage people to instigate meaningful change and foster awareness and action.

Copia’s work also aims to make partnerships a key pillar to creating change and action in the world of sustainability. Paige Sullivan Lowe, VP of Customer Success, talked about how the donation engine is working to address food waste: Using its platform to connect donors with excess food with a wide network of partners to receive it, Copia give the donors real-time information — including greenhouse gas reductions and enhanced tax deductions, and monitoring their donations — through its dashboard. Moving beyond the typical food bank partnerships, Copia is able to get food to other organizations including women’s shelters and veteran homes. A case study involving 1 Hotels exemplified how behavioral changes and strategic partnerships can significantly reduce food waste while fostering community engagement through employee volunteer initiatives and meal donation programs.

Another organization utilizing a vast network to combat food waste is ReFED. VP of Operations and Finance Shawn Shepherd spoke on the organization's goal to create a sustainable, resilient and inclusive food system. On the alarming statistic that one-third of produced food is never consumed while millions of Americans face food insecurity, she said: “The US signed on to agreements to cut food waste by 2030, but we aren’t going fast enough — because we need more people to join the fight.” Shepherd drilled down on the importance of data-driven insights and collaborations with NGOs and businesses to reduce food waste at every level of the supply chain. Initiatives such as the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment and the US Food Waste Pact demonstrate ReFED’s commitment to collective action and measurable goals. Its approach includes education, behavior-change campaigns and practical solutions to minimize food waste — emphasizing the importance of understanding the problem, forming strategic partnerships, and implementing scalable solutions with documented processes for success.

Ana Fitzgibbons, Alcohol in Society Director at Diageo North America, highlighted Diageo’s community impact through its work to encourage responsible alcohol consumption. Fitzgibbons identified four key steps for purposeful partnerships: defining goals transparently, listening to partners and advisors, co-creating solutions, and allocating resources effectively. The strategy involves starting with small, regional initiatives, gradually expanding and benchmarking performance against clear goals. Effective communication, active listening and celebrating achievements together are crucial for success — as well as fostering partnerships and reflecting on progress to expand existing initiatives.

Partnerships are also critical in Eneration’s mission to lower the environmental impact of healthcare. For the past 15 years, the Gundersen Health System initiative has been working to reduce the cost of healthcare and improve community health through energy efficiency and sustainability. CEO Alan Eber discussed the challenges the industry faces — including a lack of client interest in sustainability, retention concerns and low margins. Given that younger generations value sustainability, the healthcare-cost crisis, and the industry's significant environmental footprint, driving sustainability is crucial. Eber said forging local partnerships and fostering a culture of collaboration has helped Eneration drive energy efficiency and adoption of renewables in healthcare facilities — creating both emissions and cost savings.

Nicole Call, Director of Package Development at Aveda, shared that the vegan personal-care company thrives on partnerships with a variety of like-minded stakeholders — including retailers, artists, stylists, diverse consumers, employees, suppliers and over 100 NGOs — also committed to sustainable and ethical practices. When it comes to packaging, Call credited supplier partnerships with helping the brand become the first in the industry to use 100 percent post-consumer recycled PET in a product package; and it continues to set industry standards through partnerships with material suppliers that share its values. She also credits an internal culture of pushing boundaries and questioning norms — emphasizing that positive change starts from within.

While an internal culture that embraces change is critical in developing new partnerships, sometimes there must be a bridge between the private and public sectors. Kaitlin Love, Global Sustainability Principal at CARE, discussed the organization’s development and humanitarian efforts targeting poverty reduction with a focus on women and girls in countries such as Tanzania. Working on integrating social sustainability and impact within global supply chains, CARE has shifted the narrative towards mutually beneficial, strategic relationships rather than the traditional donor-based approach. Love highlighted CARE’s work with Kazi Yetu — a social enterprise that aims to keep the economic benefits of the country’s tea production in Tanzania — as an example of CARE’s work to establish equitable supply chains and overcome challenges in working with NGOs and the public sector, and ensuring women and savings groups are central to these models.

By examining real-world case studies, attendees gained a nuanced understanding of how collaborative efforts can yield tangible benefits while also nurturing virtuous cycles of behavioral shifts among stakeholders — and were encouraged to explore collaboration as a catalyst for driving sustainable, inclusive and impactful change within their own spheres of influence.

The rocky road to culture-changing brand communications

Finally, the opening keynotes covered themes ranging from cultural intelligence and brand purpose integration to circular packaging and the role of art in climate and sustainability discourse; and concluded with a welcome to Minnesota — along with a brief history of the state’s contributions to both corporate innovation and purpose — from Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, Mayor of New Brighton and Managing Director and COO at Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose.

Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Dr. Anastasia Kārkliņa Gabriel, Senior Lead of Global Insights at Reddit, began by highlighting the power of cultural intelligence and shared ways Reddit uses data from community conversations on its platform to inform consumer trends and cultural shifts in consumer mindsets and behavior. She challenged the brand leaders in the room to use their influence as culture creators to drive a mass cultural adoption of a new way of living that is less focused on consumerism: “All brands are a driving force behind how we live and consume sustainably — or not,” she said.

Freya Williams and Dale Green | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Next, Revolt’s Freya Williams joined MarsDale Green to discuss Green’s journey from a “marketeer” for global brands including Pedigree and Snickers to his latest role as Head of Brand Purpose. He saw that the brand and marketing teams were not delivering the impact they could related to purpose and gradually focused more of his time as a “Purpose Integration” professional inside the organization. Green shared some creative hits (including a recent Maltesers campaign which highlighted the prevalence of and lack of conversation around postpartum mental health struggles; after the campaign launch, the brand had its best quarter ever and 200,000 women reached out for help) and misses (M&M’sFans of Wind” campaign) from his tenure — and stressed the importance of sustainability messaging coming from an integrated place within a company’s brand identity and purpose, rather than a bolt-on.

Sam Monnie and Kheri Holland Tillman | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Samuel Monnie, the day’s MC and SB’s SVP of Revenue, then joined Kheri Holland Tillman, Chief Marketing Officer at BlueTriton Brands, to explore the risk-reward profile of communicating too little or too much on sensitive issues. BlueTriton is working on several commitments to address the prevalence of plastics in the environment and recently launched several of its water brands in an aluminum package to achieve better reuse and circularity for its packaging footprint. Tillman highlighted the importance of a major theme throughout the week and the sustainability world — working together, not in silos — to effectively address critical issues.

Benjamin Von Wong | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Then, renowned photographer and activist artist Benjamin Von Wong reminded us of the impact of experiencing the unexpected through art and its incredible potential as a catalyst for conversation and behavior change. His environmental art installations all over the world have created arresting visuals and millions of views for causes including ocean plastics, fashion pollution and the environmental impact of Bitcoin. Von Wong shared examples of his art and activism partnerships with NGOs and global brands including Starbucks, Dell and Kiehl’s. He said the power of art is that doesn't tell you what to think — it resonates with viewers by telling them what they stand for.

Von Wong shared three prompts for sustainability practitioners/marketers to consider:

• Which movements can you support?

• Which solutions can you champion?

• What hope can you create?