Great brands don’t stop at connecting with mere outward expressions of who we think we are or what we want to be. The very best brands connect with long-held mystical beliefs underlying our rational selves, the parts of our sub-consciousness that manages and helps us to cope with all the irrational, arbitrary, inexplicable unknowns in life. These thoughts take shape in symbols forged from ancient stories reflecting patterns of thought and beliefs about how we understand ourselves. Carl Jung argues these narratives and their archetypal characters are universally present in our individual psyches, to which we are powerfully attracted as a means of giving life meaning and managing reality.
Associating themselves with these primal forces, successful brands incite great emotion — often more subconscious than conscious — turning us, if for a moment, from citizen Jane or Joe into the Sage, the Hero, the Jester, the Lover. Today we know these characters as the Marlboro Man, Princess Diana, Superman, James Dean, James Bond — ancient archetypes in modern drag whose images, when used correctly, provoke us to want and buy a given product.
Consistent messaging is critical, as is a sense of belonging to some defined group or community. Knowingly or not, we all want the safety of the group, to feel part of a community or clan. Feelings of association and loyalty to a “cultural norm” are similar in effect to the affinity felt towards cultural totems, astrological signs, or nationality and race. Some products have infiltrated our psyches to the extent that we readily adopt symbols and rituals, great and small, claiming association with a community. Belonging to the Harley Davidson Owners’ Club or pasting an Apple bumper sticker on your car proclaims clan status in a public way. Not as intense but no less demonstrative is expecting a lime atop your Corona or enacting the Oreo twist-lick-dunk ritual — all part and parcel of belonging through consumption.
Some may scoff or brush these relationships off as superficial, but as societies become increasingly secular, material consumption and ownership are sadly coming to define us more and more. In his powerful book, TechGnosis, Erik Davis tells us archetypes have been “trademarked, licensed, and sold,” and that a “baroque arcana of logos, brand names, and corporate sigils now pepper landscapes, goods, and our costumed bodies … [and] our mnemonic icons no longer mediate the animist powers of nature or the social magic of kings, but the power of corporate identity and the commodity fetish.”
Clans, Brands and Universal Sustainability Instincts
Until the early part of the last century, the state of branding was little more advanced than in the 1600s when the practice of burning a company’s “mark” onto a product or packing crates became widespread; while helpful for identifying goods in the hold of a ship or at the back of a shop, it did little to add value to the products themselves. Modern brand management really wasn’t born until Neil H. McElroy wrote his famous Procter & Gamble brand-management memo in 1931. It took 50 more years until in the early 1980s for the art of branding to emerge as a credible part of business management, when marketers began to see the value creation potential at stake.
*“If this business were to be split up, I would be glad to take the brands, trademarks and good will and you could have all the bricks and mortar — and I would fare better than you.”*John Stuart, former Quaker Oats chairman circa 1930
It was then that a small cadre of what were widely regarded as “nutty” marketing and financial types cobbled together conventional finance and marketing analytics to calculate the until-then-believed incalculable monetary value of a brand. These measurement pioneers had great success despite ferocious criticism, and today some two dozen brand valuation methods are regularly accepted in courts of law as a means to establish the dollar value of a brand. In the years since, brand experts have elevated “branding” to a highly sophisticated and respected practice. Companies large and small, retail or business-to-business, even individuals now consider brand management indispensable! The growth of social media is only fueling an even frothier branding craze.
As climate change-related storms, viruses, resource shortages and economic injustice increasingly create havoc and violence throughout society, it is clear that marketing and brands could help motivate purchases satisfying not just individual needs and yearnings. Brands and branding can also be used to appeal to our greater selves, those parts of our psyches where universal sustainability values reside and tell us our individual survival is unequivocally linked to the common good.
I am no anthropologist but it seems clear to me that linking brand to our survival instinct and the “clan” is a bit stronger strategy than the more superficial “I want to be sexy or manly” approach. Clan-like devotion to some brands hints at this power and an increasing number of companies are associating themselves with these instincts. Sustainability-minded consumers favor Timberland shoes, for example, because they source and then transparently report on the sustainability merits of inputs and processes employed to make the shoes. Consumers buy organic food not just for the obvious health benefits, but because they help the environment, usually support local farmers and local economic activity, and are often sold in small producer markets creating social connections and great good will.
Just as a poor cane-cutter in Brazil may prize his Ferrari polo shirt, millions of consumers are willing to pay more for the experiences and emotional stimulation that buying sustainability can provoke. Even consumers who make only an occasional sustainability-related purchase are buying a deeply moving personal experience. It is as Merriam Associates wrote:
The most successful brands are being co-opted as powerful symbols in larger debates about economics, social issues, and politics. The power of brands to communicate a complex message quickly and with emotional impact and the ability of brands to attract media attention, make them ideal tools in the hands of [sustainability] activists.
And while the nature and purpose of sustainability branding is pretty much the same as it is with conventional products, once provoked, a sustainability experience must be consistently satisfied to maintain brand loyalty. Resting on “obvious” sustainability laurels is a hubris many responsible brands have committed with all too conventional business results: Just ask one of the many dozens of bankrupt solar panel, organic coffee, and environmental land development companies that thought association with something good was good enough! Sustainability-focused brands, just like any other, must be actively and well-managed.
There are some notable management differences as well. Sustainability-minded brands not only stoke strong emotions, they normally rile forceful, often politically charged opinion. As Raphael Bemporad of BBMG noted: “sustainability for brands means having an opinion, making a commitment and embodying coherence in supporting others.” This is unfamiliar turf for many brand experts whose training teaches them brands must remain publically agnostic. Exciting deeply held feelings is the power of sustainability brands and being wishy-washy doesn’t get you far with the sustainability-minded consumer.
The power of opinion also comes with limitations. The lines between some sustainability market segments can be very black and white, with sustainability brands getting as much hate-you as love-you mail. Sustainability brands are also held accountable to higher standards by the market in general, and by their own clan more so. Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, for example, found itself in hot water recently boiled up by some of its biggest fans, social investors who publicly demanded the company write an annual sustainability report. It may well be that the company’s performance made transparent will pass the high expectations of its stakeholders, but either way, rest assured its stakeholders will always want more and better sustainability performance. Address child labor in your supply chain one year, the next its traceable material inputs, then gender issues … the list goes on and on, as it should!
Sustainability Brand Value — The New Nutty?
Some might ask if sustainability branding is worth the effort. For those brands able to exploit emerging cultural and economic shifts giving rise to sustainability values, needs and emotions, the answer is definitively yes.
We are in fact only now learning the value creation potential of sustainability branding. For some time we have known and have been able to calculate how Big Four (carbon, water, material use and energy) efficiencies enhance profit margins. But as any investor knows the value of a company or brand is often far in excess of its tangible balance sheet value. Just like the “nutty” marketing and finance folks pioneering brand valuation methods in the 1980s, we are also learning to calculate the value contribution of sustainability to a brand or company.
My own CSR Brand Value™ methodology, for example, found that sustainability tangibles and intangibles contribute from 3% to 15% of a company’s value depending on the sector (measured against income and or equity capital). Coca-Cola’s CSR Brand Value™ has an estimated sustainability contribution of about USD 900 million, the Kenyan Brewing Company USD 40 million, and FEMSA, the largest Coca-Cola bottling company in Mexico, USD 60 million[i] — amounts that surely justify excellent management attention.
Sustainability Trumps Consumerism! Ok, Not Yet …
The struggle between pursuing individual or collective good is age-old, and for eons the latter trumped the former more often than not, as there was always more danger alone than in a community. Only recently, and still primarily in developed countries, has individual material consumerism so devastatingly swamped our collective instincts.
We know intuitively that community, clan, associations, interrelationships — belonging — makes us happier and better off no matter the material status we enjoy. Rich and lasting social relationships, not things, make us better off. This much is clear, even as superficial marketing cleaves us from this understanding through promotions and campaigns that often as not serve our superficial self-images, egos, and lesser selves.
Fortunately, our instincts tell us that our best shot at happiness — survival, even — is serving a greater good: exactly the part of our soul sustainability-focused brands must aim for and affix to firmly, creating in the process deep and lasting bonds while generating great corporate sustainability value.
[i] See also similar findings from CSR Hub whose research found 28% of brand strength (a different but complementary measure) in developed country markets is related to CSR/sustainability performance. Interbrand found up to 15% of a brand’s strength is related to sustainability issues.