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Marketing and Comms
Lessons in Brand-Led Culture Change:
Righting Wrongs, Scaling Impact and Recovering from Pushback

As Brand-Led Culture Change drew to a close, a number of insightful discussions got down to brass tacks and shared lessons learned while facing a number of nearly ubiquitous brand challenges.

Better than the bottom line: How brands can create real impact

Image credit: Liquid I.V.

Creating positive impact has become a staple goal across business. However, in specific communities and the world at large, this kind of work is still considered an added cost against corporate interests and the bottom line. Today’s business leaders are presented with the challenge of doing well by doing good while meeting growth goals. Companies such as Liquid I.V. have developed a unique approach to using business as a force for good — one where impact is the central pillar of strategy rather than a considered piece. Liquid I.V. is doing just that by creating real global impact through company-wide collaboration, which is leading to both the expansion of its impact program and its growth as a company.

A Unilever company, Liquid I.V. is a unique example of innovation powered by impact. Sean Lavin, Liquid I.V.’s VP of Impact, shared that the team is inspired by ‘the oddest things;’ but that it is exactly what contributes to its brand voice. Liquid I.V. aims to be seen as a brand that cares and illustrates this through four central pillars: product donation, sustainability, grantmaking and confluence. The company has been driven from day 1 by its umbrella goal to ensure universal water security by 2050 — a commendable pursuit as 26 percent of the world’s population lacks access to safe drinking water, with 46 percent lacking access to basic sanitation.

“You have nothing to lose, everything to gain,” Lavin said. He pointed out that without great marketing, there is no voice to cut through the noise; Liquid I.V. believes that great storytelling can scale its impact and communicate its passion to a wide audience. It does this by disclosing its interim goals — such as having 100 percent of their packaging be sustainably made by 2025 — as well as highlighting its use of hero ingredients, which are ingredients they can form a story around. Its Seaberry product is a prime example of this.

The Power of Climate Labeling: Key Learnings from the SB/How Good Partnership

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Liquid I.V. wants to be a beacon for inspiring others to become active changemakers.

“True impact is when you are connecting to the consumer and they are aware of it,” Lavin said.

By providing education on how impact can be a driving force behind business strategy and growth, Liquid I.V. strives to show consumers they can become engaged citizens wherever they are.

As Marketing Director Maddy Simmer concluded, “My vision is for our lived communities to become advocates for our impact work.”

Centering Indigenous wisdom and stories on the road to regeneration

Image credit: Cheekbone Beauty

In Indigenous spaces, success means edifying both human and non-human communities; Western language has few analogies for it. In this Tuesday afternoon session, attendees circled around two Indigenous leaders from business and academia to hear the vital role that Indigenous wisdom plays in fostering harmonious relationships between all communities and uncovering ways to integrate Indigenous knowledge systems to foster a deeper sense of stewardship, empathy and inclusivity among brands and consumers.

“Land is an extension of myself,” said Pat Gonzales-Rogers, Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Yale University. “My identification is the land. It is the place where I live and worship. … The reality is, the health of the people is the health of the land.”

Regeneration has always been a cultural precept as well as a moral instruction for native peoples. Centering the land as a primacy of vocation, something to sustain and pass on, provides a much more organic relationship similar to what all people — white and otherwise — were originally born with.

“The thing that we worship in North America is money; and then money makes people think they are better than other human beings,” said Jenn Harper, founder and CEO of Cheekbone Beauty — a cosmetics brand centered around clean, sustainable products and telling Indigenous stories. “It can happen to any one of us.”

Harper shared that shame related to her identity led to substance abuse in her youth. Understanding herself and her heritage helped her heal — building an innate relationship with land, herself, and all living things and non-living things.

“When you hear Indigenous say ‘all of my relations,’ they really mean everything, because that is what it means.”

It’s an insight that could help shape the efforts of the growing wave of brands aiming to appeal to more conscientious consumers: Human alignment with the environment — flowing with it, through it, and of it — is one of the reasons that all elements of the earth, from rocks to trees, are considered persons to First Peoples.

“[Indigenous] know that these things are all a part of us,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “But though this is an inherently native way of looking at things, this does not mean others are disallowed.”

Healing the separation between people and their places is one of the key blessings that First Peoples have always provided. To begin healing, Gonzales-Rogers and Harper invited business leaders to reexamine relationships to the “external” world.

“It is a direct nexus to your inner being, your inner health,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “So, the more you take care of the external being, the more you take care of the internal.”

Empathy is essential to understanding the Indigenous experience. The continued sufferings of many members of First People nations — as evidenced by high rates of alcoholism and suicide — stem from systemic deletion of Indigenous cultures and brutal, forced assimilation.

“With generational trauma — with this pain and traumas passed on through my family and ultimately on to me — we’re living with the residual, negative effects of that system,” Harper shared. “If we can’t understand that, how in the heck can we expect to connect with these communities?”

“You build a bridge of trust,” Gonzales-Rogers said. “You make sure your actions are consistent with your words … Without that you cannot be doing the work.”

He also stressed the importance of companies and organizations working directly with native communities and not third-party liaisons.

Scaling Indigenous perspectives in business requires the buy-in of investors, consumers and personnel; and the bravery to reject the Western “winner takes all” ideal. To be successful and meaningful, Harper concluded, business-led initiatives must create shared value and transform entrenched systems.

How internal culture drives brand authenticity

Image credit: Alexander Suhorucov

Another Tuesday afternoon session centered on employee engagement and brand culture.

The lively discussion examined different tactics that three very different companies — Crowe LLP, MGM Resorts and WeSpire — are using to align their purpose with their culture; and the hard work, consistency and deep listening that is required for employees to be able to "feel the culture" instead of "voting with their feet" and moving on, because they don't feel the company is living up to the values it espouses externally.

MGM doubled down on its company culture and revisited its culture strategy during the pandemic, including touch points such as a listening tour with employees and gaining new executive leadership buy-in. Yonata Rubin, MGM’s Head of Talent, described the strategy as highly successful — leading to a year-over-year improvement in net promoter score of 11 percent.

Crowe Sustainability and Social Impact Leader Farrell Calabrese similarly described the pandemic as a "leveling moment" — when everyone except frontline workers went home and had a chance to reset the culture, and also to implement WeSpire’s digital tool for engagement, that allowed everyone to participate. She described how important it is to break down silos; and also to be sure that employees are the first to hear company news, rather than hearing it through external communications. As a professional services firm, people are Crowe’s most material asset; making culture exceedingly important.

Lessons from responding to market pressure and negative pushback

Image credit: Nespresso

Brand-led Culture Change wrapped with an illuminating fireside chat between Etienne White and Stephen Kill, Director of Advertising & Communications at Nespresso, which dove deep into Nespresso's commitment to transparency and authenticity as it continues to work to fulfill its brand and sustainability promises while navigating market pressure and instances of negative pushback.

As consumers continue to expect more from brands regarding their social and environmental commitments, and evolving regulations on brand communications become more restrictive, the question for brand communicators is how to adapt while maintaining a positive reputation?

Nespresso, an operative unit of Nestlé Group, puts pressure on leadership to do more advocacy for the consumers they serve, as both consumers and employees want to see more of such from the brand. Kill proudly shared the various partnerships Nespresso has conducted with mission-driven organizations including the Ali Forney Center, Thrive Scholars and the Equal Justice Initiative.

White asked if the murder by police of George Floyd — which happened here in Minneapolis, three years ago this month — was the beginning of Nespresso realizing there is more the brand could do to combat systemic injustice. Kill said that social issues are a key focus for Nespresso — the company holds monthly fireside chats to discuss how pertinent issues affect stakeholders.

“Brands and companies are comprised of people. Listen to them. If you have the right people, there should be some stuff you should get at a gut level,” Kill shared.

On the topic of negative pushback Nespresso has experienced, Kill shared instances when consumers questioned the company’s stance on certain topics. For example, when Nespresso gave customers the option to opt out of Mother’s Day emails, the knee-jerk backlash accused Nespresso of “canceling Mother’s Day.” Kill pointed out that in these cases, best practices to keep in mind are to “not engage the trolls” and “always go back to what feels right.” While acknowledging that Nespresso has watered down its messaging at times, Kill said regulations and certifications can keep the brand’s accountability in check — incentivizing it to walk its talk.

Last year, Nespresso obtained B Corp certification and proudly disclosed the validation of its commitment to environmental stewardship and social welfare — which garnered mixed reactions from stakeholders, including other B Corps. While Nespresso scored highest in the environment category, Kill humbly admits that it can improve how it scores with regards to customers, which it aims to do by 2025.

The company continues to partner with organizations that improve its value chain — including the Hispanic Federation in Puerto Rico, to restore the country’s coffee harvest to pre-hurricane levels; as well as leading conservation efforts in places such as Hawaii with the American Forests Partnership. Internally, Nespresso prioritizes optimizing recyclability of its coffee pods — which has led it to create unique recycling systems and partnerships of its own.

As the session drew to a close, White took final thoughts from both Kill and the audience. Kill and White agreed that, in a “culture of constant broadcast,” there should be a shift to a cheerleading narrative for brands on the sustainability journey — one that encourages companies to do the right thing and stand by their values, even in the face of market pressure and backlash.

As hard as brands try, they will never be able to please everyone all the time. Nespresso shows that staying committed to the values outlined, while looking for paths to build upon those values, will create the resiliency needed to stay the course.