Marketing and Comms
Playing the Big Game:
Are We Branding for Sustainability?

When it comes to sustainable brands, we can play the big game or the small game. What I call “Branding of Sustainability” is the small game. It simply means applying old-school brand action, such as advertising and other marketing communications, even leading-edge techniques, to brands that are already sustainable. But “Branding for Sustainability” is the big game. It is about applying new-school brand thinking to the entire world of the brand, starting with discovering and defining brand-specific paths to sustainability itself. Much like its close relative, design thinking, brand thinking starts at the cradle and brings stakeholders and end users to the table, making everyone an insider to a degree, not merely guests at the party at the end.

Too often we play the small game, merely doing branding of sustainability, and as a result we aren’t having the impact we could have and should have. We ought to play the big game, and brand for sustainability. The difference is crucial.

First, some background. When we talk about sustainable brands, we are looking at sustainability particularly through the lens of brands and branding. So it becomes our job not only to drive sustainability into products, people, profit, organization, design and more, but into brands as well. But what does this really mean?

A brand has been called many things — a logo, a name, a promise, an assurance of consistency, an experience, a marketing persona, or a delivery vehicle for a benefit to a user. But more and more, we’ve come to think of a brand as a bundle of meaning that sticks in our mind and works as a frame of reference for things such as not only experience and value, but also affinity and identity. We don’t just use our brands, rather we live with or even in and through our favorite brands. Brands are like stories. In this way the actual product is merely part of the brand, and some brands aren’t products in the traditional sense at all. Rather, a brand includes dimensions such as associations, memories, feelings, beliefs, communities, actions and values. Now a place, an artist, a political party, a movement or even a person can be a brand, or at least be experienced as one.

The Small Game

When applied to sustainable brands, this presents a challenge and opportunity that we can think of as the small game or the big game. In the small game, by far the most popular, we usually do one of two things: One option is that we work to make a product or service sustainable, according to our values and abilities. But as important as this is, it isn’t really branding per se, because it hasn’t to do with connecting with a user, audience, or community. The other option is to begin with a product or service that is already sustainable, and then “brand” it, that is to say market it, helping it to gain acceptance and momentum in the marketplace. In this case, we run into the usual challenges, such as overcoming concerns about performance and value tradeoffs or potentially higher prices, widening the circle of concern from self to planet, or finding a charming or disarming way to encourage new behaviors or attitudes. After you’ve been at it for a while, (my own experience goes back to 1990), it starts to get pretty repetitive and narrow. Worse, it starts to invite minor and surface variations on the same generic marketing stories and messages, and that kind of tilt toward convention is death for branding.

Take a minute and think of the usual salad of sustainability messages (good for you, the right thing to do, good for the planet, works just as well, you’ll feel good, disaster is around the corner, change your expectations, it’s gone mainstream, embrace simplicity, it’s worth a few cents or dollars more, celebrity XYZ endorses it ...). Yawn. What’s next? Slice of life and borrowed interest advertising? Dramatizations of the hectic life of a busy mom who gets her green on for a moment of personal feel-good time? As we can see, the space is relatively new, and it already invites disruption. So let’s disrupt it, by stepping into a bigger game.

But before we do, let’s note that in addition to this finite set of issues and generic, repeated messages, there are a few other important limits with this small-game approach, that is the branding of already sustainable products:

  1. It’s a limited playing field, populated by the usual suspects. But not every brand is Unilever, Patagonia, Clif Bar, etc. How can we help the others to become sustainable?
  2. It limits brand thinking to an outdated, outward-facing approach, where brands are little more than personas that stand between companies and “consumers.” Instead, brands must look and make an impact inwardly as well, serving to define the point of connection between a number of stakeholders, including employees, customers, partners and society as a whole.
  3. It places branding at the end of the process, rather than throughout and even at the very beginning, where customers and other stakeholders can have their experience, needs, perceptions, challenges, and values baked into the brand.
  4. It limits brand thinking to marketing, and divorces it from design, culture, values, planning and leadership. It reduces a brand to something outdated like a name or logo or promise, rather than a driver of meaning, affinity, identity and shared experience.

The Big Game

We can do better, so let’s disrupt it and use brand thinking to play the big game, to evolve from branding of sustainability to branding for sustainability. When we use brand thinking to design for sustainability, several good things will happen:

  • We will be informed by the specific values, expectations, behaviors and frameworks of our brand’s core constituencies, and differentiate these from those of other brands.
  • We will bake this knowledge into design.
  • We will find bridges — what I call points of convergence and emergence — between our company and our customers and other constituencies, with the brand as the meeting point — the common frame of meaning, values, and value.
  • We will learn how to best engage our stakeholders, focusing on what matters to them, and expressed in the language and other symbols they actually use.
  • We will benefit from greater acceptance, activation and action on the part of our stakeholders, resulting in more efficiency and alignment internally and externally, increasing morale and focus among employees, and benefitting from the passion and legwork of customers and other fans.
  • We’ll sell more, setting aside the uphill battles so often associated with the current, small-game status quo.
  • We will make fewer false starts and fewer missteps.
  • We will use values to shape and drive value creation.
  • We will impact the entire business, breaking down old silos and creating more integration ad cooperation between CSR, marketing, PR, product development, CFO, the board, and commentators and analysts, all now united around meeting stakeholder needs.

It’s time to consider sustainable brands as branding for sustainability. This is the bigger game. It’s more fun, and promises greater results. Join me.


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