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Marketing and Comms
Uncertain Times Require Decisive Brand Action:
Blazing New Trails in Brand Activism

On the final morning of Brand-Led Culture Change, keynote speakers tackled topics ranging from impactful partnerships and walking your ESG talk to the role of brands in creating a new ‘American Dream.’

ESG under fire: How to build brand love and shift consumer behavior in uncertain times

Image credit: Mizuno K

Renowned author, speaker and We First founder Simon Mainwaring kicked off the final morning plenary with an inspiring talk about the evolving state of global ESG strategies, which he said may be turning from a carrot-based system into something with a few more sticks involved — including new, anti-greenwashing regulations in Europe and the US.

Despite some backlash here in the US against the emergence of ESG strategies, Mainwaring said the ROI — in the form of lower cost of capital, improved operational performance, better stock prices, and more — can’t be argued.

On the topic of brand-led culture change, he highlighted a few rules of thumb:

  1. If you want to build trust, be trustworthy.
  2. Mitigate risk by self-disrupting.
  3. Solve for the ‘S’ in ESG as only your brand can.
  4. Think and act locally (Ed note: Stay tuned for much more on this topic at our flagship event in October!).

‘It’s Our Home’: How P&G is working to end water stress

Image credit: P&G

Next up were Procter & Gamble’s Scott Heid, Global VP of Communications for Sustainability and Stewardship; and Ashley Fill, Director of Sustainability and Strategy for Homecare. The two shared details of P&G’s overall sustainability strategy — which includes ambitious goals for both 2030 and 2040 on climate, water, waste and nature — before drilling down on the water component of the strategy.

Procter & Gamble has made a commitment to restore water in 18 water-stressed regions around the world, and is the first company to make water-restoration commitments (restore water used by the company and by consumers) in two of these areas: Mexico City and Los Angeles.

They explained how the company is undertaking intensive product innovation to reduce post-purchase consumer water use — noting that in the US alone, we use 150 billion gallons of water (the equivalent of 225,000 Olympic-size swimming pools) per year, simply for pre-rinsing dishes. Fill explained that most consumers don't understand that you only have to wash dishes for eight minutes before it becomes more water-efficient to simply use the dishwasher, or that 20 percent of dishwasher loads fail and need to be rerun. P&G is focused on helping to solve these water-wasting problems on the consumer end through product innovation to reduce water usage per rinse, and to reduce the number of total rewashes required: In a recent chapter of P&G’s #ItsOurHome campaign — "Made Better, Made to Save" — P&G brands including Cascade, Tide, Gillette, Pantene, Dawn, Swiffer and Oral B partnered with digital creators to show consumers how easy it can be to save water, waste and energy with products that are made with water savings in mind.

Creating a new ‘American Dream’

Image credit: Wikimedia

Next was Alain Sylvain, artist, investor and CEO of Sylvain.co — a NYC-based brand strategy, innovation and design firm. A child of Haitian-American immigrants, he looked at the idea of the “American Dream” — including what it used to represent and what it has become today — arguing passionately that for younger generations, the American Dream has become a "chapter in a history book" rather than a modern, accessible framework for living. With home ownership out of reach, high healthcare costs, skyrocketing education costs and rising inflation, many young people struggle to make ends meet; 71 percent of people under 30 say the “dream” no longer exists.

Sylvain described three major shifts happening that reflect how young people are thinking about the American Dream, or lack thereof, in 2023, and:

  1. From individual to collective gains: Young people want to see an economy that works for everyone, where work is tied to collective wellbeing and not just individual gain.

  2. From blind materialism to critical consumption: Gen Z want to shop their values and have choices that are friendly to workers and communities, and to the planet.

  3. From reactive living to proactive choices: For young people, a new American Dream is a world where they feel in control of their destiny and feel like they are choosing their destiny and a life that aligns with their beliefs.

Sylvain stressed the critical importance for brands to recognize these changing values, and adapt their offerings to help young people thrive and lead meaningful and satisfying lives in these uncertain times.

More partnerships reducing plastic waste

Image credit: The Home Depot

Next, The Clorox Company’s Chris Nielsen took the stage and shared examples of reducing plastic waste through innovation and partnership at Clorox’s Glad brand — whose mission, he said, is to "outsmart waste and keep the planet happy."

Nielsen shared that Glad now powers its operations with 100 percent renewable energy and has achieved zero waste to landfill from internal operations; but he acknowledged that the brand is associated with plastic products and thus is subject to some consumer skepticism. He highlighted several partnerships and initiatives through which Glad is reducing waste and engaging consumers — including a partnership with The Home Depot to reduce plastic waste in their stores: Home Depot sends its plastic shipping waste to Glad; which Glad then turns into 10 percent recycled, co-branded plastic garbage bags that help expand consumer awareness.

The future of impact claims and what customers want next

Image credit: rePurpose Global

During BLCC’s packed final plenary, attendees first heard from Aditya Siroya, co-founder and Chief Impact Officer at rePurpose Global, who opened with a sobering statistic: By the time he left the stage after his 15-min talk, over 80 billion pounds of plastic waste would be generated — the equivalent weight of 200 blue whales. Only 9 percent of this waste will be recycled, with the rest landing in landfills and the environment.

The absence of comprehensive waste infrastructure globally or even nationally has created an imperfect, informal waste-collection sector involving millions of marginalized and at-risk people.

In places such as Mumbai, trash flows seamlessly into the cityscape. The solution to the dual environmental and social crises brought on by plastic waste lies within the same communities who have already created innovative systems for ethically and effectively managing plastic waste; but these solutions haven’t been scaled effectively.

Why? Because they lack capital.

rePurpose invests in an intersectional process that emphasizes ending plastic pollution while empowering local communities. rePurpose has kept 33 million pounds of plastic from entering the ocean while simultaneously creating incomes for over a million citizens across the global south.

The problem is deeply complex; so, the solutions must be equally complex, layered and collaborative. The good news is that consumers are actively rewarding brands that are walking their talk on holistic sustainability solutions. Plastic-waste mitigation catalyzes additional action into other sustainability initiatives that help draw in conscientious consumers.

“When designing ESG strategies, it's completely normal to freak out about just how complex all of these issues are,” Siroya said. “But no matter how intractable some of these problems may seem, we invite you to sit with the complexity — not to drive inaction; but rather, channeling it to design deliberate, holistic solutions that make steady progress over time.”

rePurpose’s Plastic Reality Project (PRP) was designed for just this purpose. Launched last year, PRP arms “corporate leaders and environmental practitioners with knowledge and experiences to help shape plastic reduction efforts,” close the ambition-action gap, and fulfill consumer demands to end the plastic waste crisis.

Blazing new trails for brand activism

Image credit: Clif Bar

Closing out the event, alpinist and activist Caroline Gleich described how she has partnered with Clif Bar & Company to influence and scale environmental and social advocacy.

“Powerful change can happen when businesses can engage in public-private partnership,” Gleich said.

Purpose-led brands have a unique opportunity to partner with aligned individuals to champion change and build brand affinity. And these partnerships form the ripples that eventually become a wave.

Clif’s athlete partnership program “allows athletes to place their trust in the idea that their voices will be heard,” said Sarah Beaubien Clif’s Senior Director of Impact & Sustainability.

As in skiing, if business focuses on everything that could go wrong, that will likely become its path. Avoid the “don’t,” because you will gravitate toward it.

Gleich and Beaubien acknowledged that advocacy is hard work for brands — and, for too many, risky. Don’t internalize shame and guilt, Gleich said — the shame that industries and lobbyists use to deflect guilt away from themselves and onto consumers: “Find the joy and keep speaking and showing up.”

Partnerships between athletes and Clif are more than branding, but proof that joining forces in advocacy is a way to keep a movement alive in a very lonely landscape. For Gleich, that means her mission has the backing and voice of a world-known brand. And for Clif, it means building similar partnerships between industries.

The moral of the stories from today and all of this week? Show up. Speak up. And keep talking and walking and doing until change is made.

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