At SB’18 Vancouver, over 2,000 representatives from our global community of sustainability practitioners, brand strategists, product and service innovators, thought leaders and other change-makers converged to share their latest insights on a multitude of themes pertinent to all of those committed to improving business around the world. Here, we dig into how brands are finding unique ways to embed social and environmental purpose into all touchpoints.
Brands taking a stand!
As Kolster explained, “Bravery requires risk. As a brand, it can cost you something.” He used Axe for Men as an example. When Unilever pivoted the brand from one that made men irresistible to women to talking about the #1 killer of men — suicide — it took the risk of alienating its core audience.
Michael Masserman is Head of Global Policy & Strategy at Lyft, the first carbon-neutral ridesharing company. But Lyft’s purpose goes beyond environmental impact. Masserman says, “We’ve created a culture of kindness.” But even kindness can be risky when it is directed towards a cause that divides people: When Lyft donated to the ACLU after President Trump’s “Muslim travel ban,” they recognized the risk.
Masserman noted that Lyft’s efforts often start with employees, such as its recent partnership with United Way to drive people in underserved communities. “This effort came from our drivers who turned off their apps after the Orlando shooting and drove people back and forth,” he explained. “People call ‘bullshit’ more readily now than ever before. Authenticity matters. When we took a position on LGBTQ rights, it was about people being able to get in a car being who they are. With relief rides, it was about showing up in the way people need us to,” Masserman said.
Lyft took a stand on gender-neutral bathrooms long before they had them. The team wants to be able to respond to issues in a way that is authentic to their brand. Other efforts include working with the Human Rights Campaign, signing on to “It’s on Us” and “Fairness Project.” Riders can support causes through the Lyft app by rounding up their fare.
Christopher Miller, Activism Manager for Ben and Jerry’s, believes “It’s better to be deeply loved by some than to be tolerated by many.” Miller translates Ben & Jerry’s values into successful externally focused activist campaigns that demonstrate the company’s global commitment to its social mission goals. He quoted co-founder Ben Cohen, who said, “The best relationship you can create with your customers is around shared values.” To Miller, these two quotes go hand-in-hand: “We don’t do CSR based on who our customers are or what they care about; we follow our own purpose and values and hope it will resonate with others,” he explained. “We have a strategy to advance our values, but it is most often separate from our approach to product development. Too much overlap can seem inauthentic,” he explained.
As Ethical Campaigns Specialist for LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics North America, Carleen Pickard works to exemplify LUSH's commitment to supporting grassroots activism and groups working in the areas of environmental conservation, animal welfare and human rights. She does this by designing ways to bring the issues to life that are important to LUSH, its staff and customers though campaigns that are local, national and North America-wide in shops across the continent.
Pickard said that LUSH has an ethical buying team, a sustainability team and a charitable giving team, on which she sits. She spoke about a program around LUSH’s Charity Pot body lotion:
“We donate 100 percent of the price, minus the taxes, to small grassroots organizations working in the areas of environmental conservation, animal welfare and human rights.”
Pickard also touched on the company’s ethical campaigns. “These campaigns often aren’t on issues most people would associate with soap,” Pickard said. The company recently took a stand on transgender rights to help shift conversations and raised $410,000 in a matter of days.
Kolster ended the session by challenging the audience to think about what qualities are important for an activist brand. Mentioned were:
- When the action can benefit companies besides yours.
- Human, hungry and creative.
- When the brand has its own house in order before it reaches out externally (but don’t wait for perfection.)
Recruiting Millennials as activists, influencers and brand ambassadors
Each new generation presents new challenges to brands, including the current golden group: Millennials. Liz Maw, CEO of Net Impact, led a discussion on what brands need to know about this group.
Maw began by acknowledging the contrary news on millennials. Then she stated, “What is true is that millennials and Gen Zers don’t want to listen to you. To reach this group, brands must authentically and meaningfully engage.”
Net Impact has worked with more than 25 leading brands on global engagements. Maw offered some tips on inviting Millennials to engage.
- Get personal. REI’s #optoutside campaign allows anyone to be part of the story by posting a photo with the hashtag. LUSH offers customers to personalize postcards for social action while in the store.
- Understand that your customer influencer may not be who you think. She mentioned the Turkish workers-turned-activists who put notes in Zara clothes to alert customers that the makers of those clothes had not been paid. Customers took notice and took action.
- Millennials want you to move beyond giving back to being bold and speaking out.
Gwen Migita, VP of Sustainability & Corporate Citizenship at Caesars Entertainment, noted: “Companies often focus on implementing Diversity and Inclusion programs without investing in racial justice.” Exploration of the question of how companies address racial equity to scale beyond a marketing campaign led Caesars to open up a campaign to see how others would address these issues. Four winning proposals included plans to:
- Provide contract workers with equitable benefits.
- Sponsor programs and challenges that encourage racial equity solutions.
- Directly invest in communities of color.
- Create a data-driven platform to foster collaboration on strategies to address racial inequality.
The Caesars Foundation is now looking for partners on programs for collective impact, as well as supporting groups such as the National Urban League.
Julien Gervreau, Director of Sustainability at Jackson Family Wines, then discussed a recent dilemma: Kendall Jackson Chardonnay has been the number one chardonnay served in restaurants for 26 years. Yet its success has been based on relationships with Baby Boomers. To continue its success, the brand needs to focus on reaching Millennials. The company established three goals:
- Surface broad insights for how KJ can reach millennials with sustainability messaging
- Generate marketing plans
- Get recommendations on how best to position sustainability at point of sale (grocery)
So, KJ held a competition. 40 teams of college students submitted proposals on what they felt was working and what was not. The company selected the top 14 teams to build out ideas to 40-page proposals with a hypothetical budget of $1million. The final three teams presented to the company’s executives and summer internships were awarded to two members of the winning team from George Washington University.
Annie Longsworth, Executive Managing Director of RFB SIREN, and Maw spoke about multi-pronged strategies that drive consumer engagement through partnerships and live experiences — amplified on social media.
Net Impact’s Wear It Wise is a global campaign to spur the next generation into action around sustainable apparel, leading to a fundamental shift in consumer buying habits. Local campaign leaders were selected, and the Levi Strauss Foundation and Eileen Fisher supported the program with coaching and content. Events included a sustainable fashion show, clothing swap, prom dress giveaway, education for local fashion designers, and a case competition on sustainable supply chain. These 18 influencers were able to design informative and engaging campaigns around the topics that resonated most with their local community.
These programs illustrated the way that companies can authentically engage and empower Millennials while positively impacting their brands.
How brands can right-size purpose for their organizations
Cone Communications’ EVP Alison DaSilva believes that every company needs purpose. “We believe purpose is more than a mission statement or a commitment of values; it’s articulation of the brand’s role in society,” she said during an invitation-only lunch on Wednesday.
She explained what she calls the Five Models of Purpose and named a brand that she thinks exemplifies the model:
- Purpose brand strategy (Patagonia)
- CSR (UPS)
- Social Impact (Stella Artois)
- Social marketing (AT&T’s “It can wait” campaign)
- Brand communications (KIND’s “Kindness campaign”)
DaSilva noted that not every brand should embrace every model. Instead, leaders should choose how to right-size for their brand.
Ben and Jerry’s Christopher Miller shared another quote by co-founder Ben Cohen: “If you don’t like the way business is run, change the way you run your business.” He explained that while his company had previously taken positions on controversial topics, its support of Black Lives Matter brought some extreme reactions, including a customer who walked into a Ben and Jerry’s and spat in the face of an employee.
“Doing the right thing is not always the easy thing,” Miller acknowledged. “We couldn’t say that racial fairness was important to us and not take a position on this.”
Atlanta McIIwraith is Senior Manager for Community Engagement and Communications at Timberland. Jeffrey Schwartz, formerly of Timberland, is credited with coining the phrase “doing well by doing good.” When the company was bought by VF Corp, sustainability efforts continued because Timberland could prove the business value. Timberland is enacting a reforestation program in Haiti. In 2010, it set a goal to plant 5 million trees in 5 years. More than 3,000 farmers engaged, with increases in productivity and earnings. Farmers were trained, given seeds and tools; they gave back new seeds and a share of profits.
Now, the Smallholder Farmers Alliance is working with Timberland to revive organic cotton growing in Haiti, to be used for clothing. Timberland has reached out to other brands, including Vans and Patagonia, which they hope will join the effort.
Strategic partnerships helping brands move beyond just marketing
During one of the final plenaries on Thursday morning, Jay Gottleib, President of the Family Care Sector at Kimberly Clark Corporation (KCC), spoke about the evolution of the company’s sustainability initiatives across product lines — including household names Kleenex, Cottonelle, Scott and Viva. KCC was founded in 1872 and is now “a trusted part of life in more than 175 countries.” The company started publicly publishing their goals 20 years ago and have been recently set sustainability goals in five priority areas: Social Impact, Forests and Fiber, Waste & Recycling, Energy & Climate, and Sustainable Supply Chain. One takeaway: Consumers care and they are excited to know that KCC is taking responsibility as stewards of our natural resources.
However, Gottleib said that committing and publishing progress just wasn’t “enough.” KCC developed a partnership with WWF in 2009 — before the public-private partnership model was popular. “We learned that panda is the most recognized NGO label in the entire world, and if we can leverage it, we can help consumers understand the decisions they make, which will help drive sustainability.” Gottleib says marketing should always follow, and shouldn’t drive, promotions of how a company is being socially responsible.
Joining him onstage was Susan Emmer, Senior Director of Impact Partnerships at XPRIZE, the global leader in designing and implementing crowdsourced, incentivized competitions to solve global challenges. She says, “we believe a great idea can come from anyone, anywhere... You get what you incentivize but without a target you’ll miss it every time!” This Thursday plenary sessions was the formal announcement of the partnership between KCC and XPRIZE.
Emmer introduced a guest video from Peter Diamandis, Executive Chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation. He addressed the Sustainable Brands audience saying, “We’re heading to a world of abundance, from have and have-not, to haves with super-haves!” With the XPRIZE competition, small teams can solve the world’s largest problems. Incentives are key, and with the support of KCC and XPRIZE, winning ideas can contribute to making our world more sustainable.
Together, the organizations are searching for the largest opportunity for a breakthrough that can transform the world. The partnership’s impact map will bring the solutions together, then put the call back out to the world to decide who wins. They are inviting all seven billion people on Earth to enter.
How to future-proof your brand in this age of activism
By far my favorite of the week, this session focused on how brands can navigate increasing expectations of the private sector to step up to the sustainability challenge in a brave new world of smartphones and social media. A clear message emerged: While it’s no longer safe to stay on the sidelines of social purpose, it’s also a really bad idea to jump off the deep end into initiatives that haven’t been thought through. Jim Moriarty, Director of Brand Citizenship at ad agency 72andSunny, summed it up this way: “You need to know who you are as a brand; you need to know where you are swimming. If your feet can’t touch the bottom, just don’t go there.”
In an active dialogue, panelists and attendees drilled down on how to deliver on social purpose in a way that is authentic, resonant with consumers and stakeholders, and strategically aligned with business performance.
Understanding consumer expectations
According to a new study by Edelman, belief-driven purchasing decisions are on the rise, along with rising engagement. The report states that “the new normal for belief-driven consumers [is to] buy your brand, switch from it, avoid it and — at the extreme — boycott it over your stance on a controversial or social issue.” In Moriarty’s words, “The bar keeps getting raised — people can call bullshit on companies faster and faster and the consequences will be more and more serious.” Melissa Anderson, co-founder and president of Public Good, looks at this as an opportunity: “People are looking to brands to help them make a difference, so the question is, how are you developing relationships and individualizing that opportunity for them?”
Developing consumer and employee relationships
There’s a real concern right now about the quick backlash that can flare up from a video or tweet that goes viral on social media. Panelists agreed that the best defense is a good offense: listening to what consumers care about, delivering on social purpose, and communicating well and consistently. Lyft has found a way to rock this formula. The company offers customers a Round Up & Donate feature on its app that lets them round up a ride fare to the nearest whole dollar and then donate the difference to a cause of their choice. Tim Burr, Lyft’s Director of Public Policy, observed, “Our customers are seeking community, and through the Round Up program, they are contributing to their favorite charity every time they interact with our brand.”
Panelists agreed on the need to listen and co-create on social purpose with employees as well, mentioning Salesforce’s employee dashboard, which allows them to volunteer and donate according to their individual skills and interests.
As a brand that developed around a strong environmental mission, Patagonia has been working deeply on sustainability issues behind the scenes for a long time and enjoys strong customer loyalty. According to Sam Murch, Patagonia’s Activist Hub Coordinator, “People are finding out about Patagonia because of their core values, and returning to us for the same reason.” Patagonia offers customers its Action Works program, connecting them to the environmental organizations working on the issues they care about with a menu of engagement options. Murch offered advice for brands that may be shy about highlighting sustainability issues in which they are complicit: “Take a look at your dirty laundry and be transparent around it. For some of our textiles, we’re concerned about microplastic pollution. We’ve worked with research partners and have published an article about it, trying to figure out how we can do better.”
Systemic advocacy aligned to social purpose
The panel discussed the complexity of speaking out about policy issues, weighing concerns about the potential to alienate customers and stakeholders with their brand legitimacy and their strategic sustainability interests.
Panelists called out the difference between companies founded with a social purpose and others trying to develop one. As an activist brand with a passion for wilderness preservation, Patagonia has run a decade-long public campaign to preserve the size of two national monuments in Utah. When in December 2017 the current administration ordered a reduction in the size of these public parks by nearly 2 million acres combined, Patagonia’s website flashed this powerful message: “The President Stole Your Land.” And Patagonia’s competitors, including The North Face and Arc'teryx, came out in support. “Your best-case scenario is that you are inspiring your competitors to join you in these issues,” Murch said.
Anderson sees things moving towards more choice. “We can expect to see a real increase in the level of sophistication of social impact campaigns of brands,” she said. “While this has been founder-driven in the past, the future is for campaigns to be stakeholder driven. The future will be less prescriptive on how to make a change, giving more flexibility to people to act on what they care about.”
Moriarty believes that “the real opportunity is to be out in front, owning the narrative. Create a distinct narrative and use it as a pressure test for your brand. It shouldn’t be between good and bad, but between good and slightly better.”
I asked session participant Coro Strandberg for her take. “Brands that don’t stand for something will lose market share — I believe this will hold true in the future,” she said. “But I think the real sustainability game changer is when brands work with government to meet the strategic needs of their sustainable business models, the way Interface supported California’s carpet recycling bill to drive a circular economy in the carpet industry.”