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Walking the Talk
5 Ways to Recession-Proof Your Brand with Purpose

Research shows that companies that succeed in uncertain times are those attuned to stakeholder needs and that focus on what matters most; those that go into survival mode and pull back from investing in their business flounder in a recession.

Business leaders today face unprecedented pressures: volatile markets, the Great Resignation, political turmoil, war, social-justice strife and environmental disasters. Add in rising material costs and stretched supply chains and you have a headache.

You might be thinking now is not the time to take on the lofty goals that come with organizational purpose and the integration of environmental and social strategies into your business, let alone all the change it would bring with it.

Those very initiatives and your own purpose-driven leadership have the potential to solve your most pressing business challenges. And research shows consumers not only expect this from you, they’ve never been more eager to prove it: 96 percent of consumers say buying from purpose-led brands is important despite soaring inflation rates and a looming recession — and 50 percent are willing to pay more for these products.

“What we have seen emerge both in the data and in culture convinces us that now is not the time to shrink back on sustainability and ESG criteria,” says sustainability practitioner, speaker and author Philippa Cross. “It’s time to double down with focus and clarity.”

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Analysis of previous economic downturns shows companies that succeed in uncertain times are those attuned to stakeholder needs and that focus on what matters most — and those that go into survival mode and pull back from investing in their business flounder in a recession.

“Companies that double down on progressive, transformational strategies — and that use their material issues to map both risks and opportunities — do more than survive. They thrive,” Cross says.

Here’s five ideas for how to lean into sustainability initiatives, with purpose, and recession-proof your brand:

1. Make it easier for people to do what they already desire to do — and find relevance in the process.

Conscious consumerism is how ordinary people impact change. And the majority of US consumers are eager to change their own behaviors in order to impact the world for the better — they just want brands to make it easier for them to do so.

Think: Hellman’s “Make Taste, Not Waste” campaign, which aims to decrease food waste by showing people how mayo can turn leftover food into a tasty flavor adventure. It’s a move that exemplifies how a brand can help consumers be more sustainable, well beyond the point of purchase.

“If we do our job well — if we inspire consumers, show them the possibility of food, excite them about what food can be — then the downstream effect will help us achieve our UN Sustainable Goal of trying to reduce food waste by half by 2030,” says Benjamin Crook, North American VP/GM of Dressings + Condiments at Unilever.

2. Turn your purpose into protection amid backlash.

As trust in government institutions slips, citizens increasingly want brands to be changemakers — focused not merely on profit but on taking stands that align with their beliefs. And they’re influencing social issues by engaging with brands they love (or don’t) and work for. Find ways to prove your brand’s purpose through powerful actions, which then become real stories for consumers that lead to authentic word of mouth and social sharing.

Think: Dick’s Sporting Goods — a brand with a purpose to empower people to do their best. In the days following a school mass shooting in 2018, Ed Stack — Dick’s Sporting Goods’ CEO and biggest shareholder — took bold action: He pulled a certain type of semiautomatic rifle off the shelves of the 850-store chain and ended the sale of firearms to people under 21. While Dick’s would lose an estimated $250 million in sales, ultimately, profitability improved in subsequent quarters. This action inspired Walmart, L.L. Bean and Kroger to announce similar gun-sale restrictions; and today, it serves as a model for business leaders working to balance corporate interests with personal values.

3. Turn your ESG, Sustainability or Impact report into actions to prove — not boxes to check.

Investors don’t simply want your ESG analysis rating; they want evidence your brand is activating your ESG initiatives and holistically integrating them into your brand’s story, products, experience, and even your workforce culture. Measure your climate impact and have a strategy for reducing emissions. Move beyond disclosure and compliance and turn this effort into stories that will resonate with consumers. If your ESG story is stopping at your report, you’re missing opportunities.

Think: IKEA and its mission to both democratize design and create a positive impact on people and the planet. This involves not only a corporate strategy centered on better materials, production and working practices but also a critical focus on products to help people live more sustainably. Its message is communicated through all consumer touchpoints — from the experiences in-store and online to the very essence of its business: flat-packed furniture production.

IKEA’s strategy is not stuck in an ESG report; it’s an experience for its consumers. And it has earned the company a top-tier ranking from CDP, a score in the 90th percentile out of over 30,000 companies by ESG rating company CSR Hub, and a top spot in GlobeScan/SustainAbility’s 2022 Sustainability Leaders Survey.

4. Empower your employees to become super-advocates for your brand.

Employee expectations have changed. So, too, should the way brands think and act. People want to work for companies that are doing what they say they will do. Our data show 73 percent of consumers say that working for a company that aligns with their values is important; so, win inside your organization to win out in the marketplace.

Think: Tony’s Chocolonely is an impact brand that makes chocolate, founded by three Dutch journalists who discovered that the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers bought cocoa from plantations that used child labor and modern slavery practices. Its mission? To eradicate forced labor in the cocoa industry. Tony’s company culture is a magnet for the type of employees it wants to attract.

“We benefit from the brand image we have out there and it brings to us the type of talent we have coming in,” say Aidaly Sosa, head of US marketing for Tony’s. “Everyone has a shared passion for social justice, with a common mindset to be empathetic toward others — to be open, to listen. That’s so wired within the company.”

5. Turn climate action into a brief for innovation.

Climate disclosure requires that businesses measure their greenhouse gas footprint against a common framework. This climate data can be proof of your commitments — informing impactful stories that reward action. Mine data for insights that enhance credibility; find creative ways to infuse them into the stories you’re telling — then add fresh perspectives on what’s possible to maximize your brand’s impact and engage stakeholders to work together toward common goals.

Think: Grove Collaborative — a Certified B Corp with a mission to turn home-cleaning products into a force for good. The brand is built around constantly creating and curating high-performance, planet-first products to an ever-increasing community of well-intentioned consumers.

“Our purpose is really the engine behind our growth — allowing us to further differentiate ourselves as a mission-driven marketplace and family of brands in an increasingly crowded market,” says Danielle Jezienicki, Senior Director of Sustainability at Grove Collaborative. “The integrity of our mission has attracted both a customer base who is aligned with our values and top talent, furthering our ability to grow.”

Purpose-led sustainability strategies are shaping the brands of the future as they build resilience, minimize risks and identify opportunities — because if purpose is why a brand matters, then sustainability is how it gets there. And today, it requires commitment to both and action to prove it.

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