June 7-9: Brand-Led Culture Change Virtual Event

Marketing and Comms
The Breakthrough Challenge:
Arguments for Branding (and Rebranding) Sustainability

Really, what is a sustainable brand?

Having visited port wine cellars in Portugal, I know the history and value of branding — symbols literally burned into casks as a guarantee of provenance and quality. And when I think of the brands I have bought into over the years, there are a number of common links: quality (Bose, Leica), safety (Dawes cycles, Volvo), creativity (Apple), long life (Barbour jackets), self-education (Penguin, Google) and sustainability (Patagonia, though I confess that their bag I carry was given to me as a freebie at an early Wall Street Journal ‘Eco:nomics’ [another bit of branding] conference in San Diego).

Branding ensures that there are at least basic forms of conversations between those who produce, sell and consume. But the brand-mediated dialogue between business and consumers is more complicated today. For example, I always carry with me a Leica-branded compact camera, though the guts of the machine are made by Panasonic. Even though the lens is Leica’s, you pay more for that little red and white logo than you would for Panasonic’s equivalent. So why do I do it? Loyalty? Habit? A tribal need to be recognized?

Whatever the answer, I have been privileged to work behind the scenes at some of the world’s biggest brand-name companies, among them Ford, Nestlé, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Shell and Unilever. Some brands we have worked with have been ‘Velcro’ brands, to which everything bad sticks (think Monsanto), while others have been ‘Teflon’ brands (think Novo Nordisk), to which, at least for extended time periods, nothing bad seems to stick.

Google is a former Teflon brand showing signs of growing Velcro ‘stickiness,’ thanks to growing public concern about privacy, Internet surveillance and wealth divides. This reflects both the company’s own miscalculations and the growing backlash against the power and reach of US technology companies.

Over the years, we have helped an A-to-Z of top teams adapt their brand positionings and messaging to new market expectations focused on environmental, social and governance concerns. And we have seen the new power dynamics as activists learned how to leverage brands to build the buzz around their campaigns. Discovering the political leverage of brands, as one Greenpeace leader put it many moons ago, was akin to discovering gunpowder.

But again, what do we mean by sustainable brands? At least 7 trends suggest themselves, though the 7th strikes me as by far the most important and challenging:

  1. From the shields and banners of medieval heraldry to the complex aesthetics of modern brands such as Canon, Samsung or Virgin, branding has signalled identity, intent and power. Even Communism went for branding — with red backgrounds, hammers and sickles, images of revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin, and Little Red Books. So branding itself is likely to be sustainable, in the sense that it will be a fixture for as long as there are advanced economies on this planet.
  2. As global populations grow and new forms of globalization evolve, those responsible for developing and communicating both incumbent and insurgent brands will find that their capacity to engage in new types of conversation with customers, consumers, investors, policy-makers and wider society will determine which parts of their work survive and (a very different matter) thrive. So, for example, it has been fascinating to watch former ‘Teflon brands’ such as Apple having to embrace issues such as labor relations and environmental impact.
  3. We see a growing number of products designed from the get-go to align with the sustainability agenda. Vestas has done that with windpower. Innocent with soft drinks, before being swallowed by Coca-Cola. And Elon Musk with Tesla and SolarCity, though we can argue whether high-end sports cars are a truly sustainable answer to driving tomorrow’s sustainable mobility needs.
  4. Sustainability now shapes some portfolio strategies. Major companies such as Interface, Unilever, Kingfisher and SABMiller are working to boost the sustainability credentials of their product portfolios through programs such as Mission Zero, the Sustainable Living Plan, Net Positive and Prosper, respectively. We also have seen the same trend at work in companies such as GE, with portfolio-level branding including Ecomagination and Healthymagination.
  5. We now see growing competition between brands at the level of pre-competitive collaboration platforms — including the American Sustainable Business Council, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the 2030 Water Resources Group, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the World Economic Forum, or the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative. To some extent, the more, the merrier. History suggests that competition helps open out markets. But ultimately these platforms are competing for mind-share and resources.
  6. There is growing competition between different parts of the sustainability movement for influence, territory and turf. We see old concepts rebranded, as when the Ellen MacArthur Foundation came up with the Circular Economy, alongside the emergence of zeitgeist-friendly notions such as ‘X’ (think Google X, the X Prize or Solve for X) and the Sharing Economy, with its own A-to-Z (Airbnb to Zipcar) ecosystem of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. You see it, too, in the rash of new brandings for tomorrow’s capitalism, involving such terms as "breakthrough," "conscious," "inclusive," "regenerative" and, of course, "sustainable."
  7. The field of sustainability is itself in urgent need of rebranding. I love what Sustainia has been doing in Denmark, to take one example. But as someone who came up with the brand SustainAbility back in 1987, alongside terms such as green consumer, triple bottom line and People, Planet & Profit, I conclude the time has come to reboot the sustainability proposition and branding. To shift from risks to opportunities, from companies to markets (and cities), from incumbency to insurgency.

These are some themes of The Breakthrough Challenge, the new book I co-authored with Jochen Zeitz, former chairman and CEO of PUMA and now co-chair with Sir Richard Branson of The B Team. Branson, who wrote the book’s foreword, is now under attack from people such as Jo Confino and Naomi Klein. Great — let’s hold would-be changemakers accountable. But it’s time to move on, from ‘keep-others-on-the-straight-and-narrow’ purity to ‘let’s-break-down-the-old-order-and-clear-the-ground-for-whatever-comes-next’ radicalism.

Let’s do it — and, yes, let’s brand it!


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