The reality of living in a capitalist society is that we can't simply cut off the production of products and services; the brands that will succeed in the upcoming decades will be those that function holistically, with sustainable actions built in.
We are living in a relatively new epoch, defined by the catastrophic impact our overconsumption and lack of foresight have had on the planet and each other. Without urgent and drastic measures, the future is bleak. The connections between climate change and business are no secret. Recently, the SEC proposed that public companies must declare their effects on the planet to both investors and the government; and the IPCC’s newest report claims that we cannot stabilize the climate unless we lower our GDP by drastically slowing our production of goods and services. While many brands are putting time and money into functioning more sustainably — and in essence, future-proofing their business — many more are slow to the gate.
At Barkley, we’ve spent the last decade studying why some brands dominate the market. As a result of this research, we place brands into two different categories: fragmented and whole. Led by profit over purpose, a fragmented brand relies more on marketing than holistic actions; and often, there is no connection between the two. Alternatively, a whole brand is built holistically from the inside out around a core belief that drives all actions, from business decisions to marketing messages. And it measures success not just by profit and performance, but by its impact on people, communities and the planet.
“This high aspiration can future-proof a business for whatever comes its way,” says Tim Galles, director of The Whole Brand Project, author of Scratch: How to build a potent brand from the inside out, and chief idea officer at Barkley. We spoke with him to understand how to build sustainability into a brand in holistic, actionable ways.
What does your brand stand for?
Why do you exist beyond making a profit? The answer to this question creates your brand’s purpose — which should guide and inspire every decision you make and every action you create, both internally and externally. That purpose should also inspire sustainable actions.
How Retailers and Brands can close the intention-action gap
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“Purpose has to be an innovation tool that drives you to go beyond making a profit,” Galles says. “Smart brands apply it to everything they do, including their sustainability plan and accompanying actions. Ultimately, they are connected to each other, which builds amazing equity for a brand.”
Consider Bombas — a company that donates a pair of (well-designed, somewhat pricey) socks to homeless shelters with every pair sold. The company is fairly young (2013), but it proves the power of purpose to drive long-term results: It's become a $100 million brand.
“Your ‘why’ doesn't have to be as ambitious as Bombas; but if it isn't adding good to a consumer's life, communities or the planet, you won't be around very long,” Galles says.
Are you a brand with a mission or a mission with a brand?
Tony’s Chocolonely is a mission — to source and provide 100 percent slave-free chocolate worldwide — with a brand that also happens to sell delicious chocolate built around it. Dove, on the other hand, is a brand with a mission: to make a positive experience of beauty accessible to all women. What’s important is that both have built sustainability into their brand’s DNA — and they are bringing their consumers along their journey with catalytic actions of all sizes and transparent communication.
“As long as you are clear about your intent and stay on that path, the actions create momentum and equity,” Galles says. “Those actions drive the entire organization to get there faster.”
That doesn’t mean you have to have achieved your mission or be perfect. Think Dr. Bronner’s — a brand that is pushing stricter definitions of organic. The company adds this message to every single one of its new chocolate bars: “On our way to regenerative organic certified.” It’s at once an aspiration and an admission that it’s working toward an ambitious goal and letting consumers know where it stands.
If you can cut it, it’s not authentic
In times of trouble, brands that have cut sustainable actions in attempts to save money are only showing their consumers it was never an authentic goal or even a priority. Many brands tend to function in an area where they cherry pick what sustainable actions they want to take and ignore others. Those ignored actions will be the first to emerge in times of stress. The beauty of whole brands is their holistic operation.
“In the past, anything outside of the core business was seen as a bolt-on — which is just as easy to cut it off,” Galles says. “If your purpose and sustainable actions are baked into everything you do, it is hard to get rid of it.”
Chipotle is an excellent example of a brand operating holistically. From its customers — who are given a Real Foodprint tracker that compares the environmental impact of their choice — to only serving products made from ingredients that meet its standards, Chipotle's mission to provide “food with integrity” shows up even in its supply chain. These authentic actions have protected the brand through the past few difficult years; and now, it is one of the top fast-casual restaurants in the industry.
The reality of living in a capitalist society is that we won’t be able to simply cut off the production of products and services; however, the brands that will succeed in the upcoming decades will be those that function as a whole brand with sustainable actions built in.
“Whole brands will not only thrive; they will be on the right side of history and the right side of the future,” Galles asserts. “These are the brands that will succeed in the future and the brands worth building.”