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Responsible Consumerism and The Challenge of Real World Brand Building

In an economy as whacked out as this one is globally, the tired "customer is king" adage is actually a wicked understatement. Consumers have seemingly infinite choices from good brands—many of them desperate to move the merchandise to generate cash and survive. In an unforgiving marketplace like the one we are enduring, brands better build products and services around real, differentiated and defensible insights. "Here's what I hope you want to buy" is a merchandising strategy for failure.

Earning real insight into consumers in a rapidly changing world, too interconnected by social network technologies... this is not the business context my grandfather encountered when he launched our company in the last century.

But the fun only begins when you capture insight. In a consumer reality that is pathologically fast, competitively jam packed with hungry brands, and as a result mercilessly efficient, the value chain becomes this simple:

  • Discover real, differentiated insight—something the over-served consumer will deeply desire.
  • Translate the insight rapidly and regularly and at lowest possible cost into brilliant product; - Execute peerlessly and nimbly from concept to after-sales service globally.
  • "Read" the consumer reaction, find the failings in your proposition, and reiterate the cycle—fast.

Our consumer used to expect handsome, rugged, durable, well made. Now, that proffer is barely accepted as a base model. Bring us brilliant outdoor performance, bullet proof durability, matchless design ... oh, and make my boots "green." Right look, right price, right store, right story, and green—yes, that is insight, and yes, we will buy ... on that basis.

Mission is clear—now, to execute. A couple of practical realities of delivering against consumer insight in an increasingly eco-conscious world:

Green materials are not simple. Sometimes, they're more expensive than conventional raw materials. Organic cotton is one example—the issue here being that cotton farming is still largely "factory farming," and so there is much less organic cotton available for purchase. Limited supply plus high demand = expensive cotton. By contrast, Green Rubber—rubber reclaimed from used automobile tires via a patented process—actually costs less than sourcing virgin rubber. But organic cotton and Green Rubber share the cost of "non traditional" sourcing. If you want to source green, be prepared to work at it.

Good intentions earn you nothing with the Consumer King. Green is appreciated, but not if it degrades performance even one iota. Leather remains the best performing material we can present to consumers for boots, and so our design teams are saddled from the beginning with a big carbon footprint—leather meets the performance demands of our consumers, not their environmental expectations. Is your head hurting yet?

Delivering responsible product designs requires retrofitting an entire industry. Retrofitting takes time. Greening all the components of our value chain isn't as simple as swapping out a machine or changing a supply order—it's more like turning the Titanic. While it's not impossible to source for greener materials or incorporate more efficient production technologies, it does take time ... and collaboration with suppliers, and buy-in from factories. Suppliers won't simply "go green," and so neither can we—we have to work as fast and urgently as we can get our supply chain to collaborate with us.

Gone for good is the arrogance of "you can have any color you want, as long as it's black." In its place, the incredibly demanding, incredibly connected consumer, who wants it all, on his/her terms, right this very second, and no, (s)he won't pay a lot for all of it. In the middle sits the opportunity for responsible brands to connect profound insight ("green matters") through a radically refocused supply chain to the global consumer. Responsible consumerism—great products, real profits, and minimal environmental impact—the challenge of real world brand building.

Read more of Jeff Swartz's blog For the Greener Good

JBS-casual-hatJeff Swartz is the third generation of the Swartz family to lead Timberland. His grandfather Nathan started the predecessor company to Timberland in 1952. Jeff's father Sidney and his uncle Herman launched the Timberland brand in the early 1970s. Jeff was promoted to President and CEO in 1998, after working in virtually every functional area of the company since 1986. Under Jeff's leadership, Timberland has grown rapidly.

Timberland today competes in countries around the world, designing, manufacturing and marketing footwear, apparel and accessories for men, women and children. Timberland has been listed on Business Ethics magazine's list of 100 Best Corporate Citizens and in 2002, Timberland received the Ron Brown Award, a Presidential award recognizing outstanding corporate leadership in social responsibility. Follow Jeff Swartz on Twitter @Timberland_Jeff