Product, Service & Design Innovation
How Can Social Good and Profit Coexist in a Brand?

SB ‘15 San Diego kicked off Monday morning, with Paradise Point in Mission Bay serving as an inspirational backdrop to what promises to be a thought-provoking week of workshops, networking and breakout sessions.

One of the day’s first workshops started with Edelman’s Freya Williams asking, “How can social good and profit coexist in a brand?” Her obsession with the topic began in 2007, she said, when she started studying the business case for sustainability. The ensuing research led to the publishing of Green Giants, a list of nine companies with sustainability and social good at their core that also managed to achieve $1 billion in revenue.

The brands on the list won’t come as a surprise — Williams’ examples focused on case studies surrounding Chipotle, Tesla and Nike Flyknit. In total, the nine companies generated over $100 billion in 2013, and their stocks outperformed comparison companies by 11.7 percent from June 2010 to April 2015.

So, how have these companies succeeded where so many others have failed? Williams identified six common factors of companies that are successfully combined profit with social good:

Overall, the discussion proved that sustainability is a $1 billion business opportunity. The remainder of Williams’ presentation focused on the workshop’s title: how to effectively communicate the importance of sustainability.

More specifically, how can brands reach the “middle greens” — the 66 percent of consumers that Williams identifies as neither “super green” (top 16 percent) or “greens rejecters” (bottom 18 percent). On this topic, we explored several of Williams’ 11 rules for achieving mainstream appeal, including:

Behaviors first, attitude second. Behavioral economics tells us that we need to focus on behaviors first and attitudes will follow. Chipotle’s “Cultivate Festivals” were used as an example. The festivals are all about music and fun, but they also allow attendees to learn about sustainability if they are so inclined. (You can get a free burrito in exchange for “passport stamps” you receive at educational stations.)

Make it fun! 87 percent of people have no idea how to calculate their carbon footprint, so take it easy on the scientific lingo. You don’t have to oversimplify, but make it fun for people to engage with your brand, and make it easy for them to wrap their heads around the impact.

Lose the labels. We throw around buzzwords like ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ to the point that they are no longer relevant. It is also important to be aware of gender. A consumer survey shows that 82 percent of respondents think that “green” is more feminine than masculine. How do you expect to achieve mainstream adoption when you ignore half the population from the get-go?

Don’t stop innovating. In our effort to achieve sustainability, we must continue to drive value creation. Tesla has arguably created the highest-performing automobile — and also the most sustainable.

After the networking break, Williams turned the workshop around on the attendees, challenging us to develop brand strategies to effectively communicate sustainability. It was a fun exercise, with sustainability professionals from around the world sharing their expertise to help solve a problem that a group member was facing.

Following 15-20 minutes of brainstorming, group representatives delivered a three-minute presentation to the room full of attendees… and the judges: Jen Boynton (TriplePundit) and Lisa Manley (Cone Communications) were generous enough to provide feedback on how well each presentation incorporated the language of sustainability.

All in all, the ideas generated by the group were fairly impressive, especially given the fact that teams spent under 30 minutes in deliberation. Time will tell if any ideas make it out of our bayside conference room and into implementation.

At the very least, the workshop generated forward-thinking conversation about bringing mass adoption to sustainability. The irony in naming this workshop “language of sustainability” is that the key lesson may be to take the planet out of your messaging.

One attendee noted, “My 16 year-old daughter is crazy about Chipotle, but she has no idea about sustainable farming.”

Behaviors first, attitudes second. Build a great product or service built on sustainable values, and the mainstream consumer will find its way.

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