One word your brand must own: Sustainability
In 1992 at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a 12 year-old girl by the name of Severn Cullis-Suzuki delivered a speech that silenced the room with its apparent frankness, “I’m only a child, yet I know that we’re all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.” Her delivery was devoid of politics and, even without uttering it aloud, asked a simple but scary question: What are you doing to help?
There’s much to learn from this girl’s implicit question, especially if you are in the process of transforming your run-of-the-mill brand into a sustainable brand, your run-of-the-mill business to a sustainable business. There’s much to learn from looking at the world from a child’s curious and straightforward perspective. Ask a question—a big one—as children do without fear. Something juicy like: What difference does your company make for people or the planet? What is your relevance in a sustainable world?
For the last two years, my team and I have compiled hundreds of sustainable communication case studies from all over the world for my book, Goodvertising. One of the things we learned was how few brands have truly embraced sustainability as an entrenched organizational value. Here we are, in the midst of among the biggest business transformations in history, and most businesses are plodding along unawares. Just because consumers today aspire to drive Ferraris, does not mean our children won’t dream of owning a Tesla. Consumers are expecting more responsibility and more sustainability from brands every day. Brands need creativity more than ever to prepare themselves for the new sustainable market?
A question kickstarted the journey of one of the most recognized sustainable brands: Interface. Its founder, Ray Anderson, wasn’t a born tree-hugger, but in his company a group of employees wanted to make a working group on Corporate Social Responsibility. He knew very little about CSR and decided to read a few books to prepare an inspiring talk for his team. This led him to a simple, game-changing question, “Why are we making carpets that harm the planet?” This vision has since propelled his business forward and into the top tier in its industry.
If you want your brand to make a difference, you have to approach change with creativity. Begin by questioning your business, your brand, your product offerings, your target audience and your stakeholders. The entire sustainability agenda is complicated, but ideally your brand promise or communication shouldn’t be. Your brand must have a simple reason for being that’s bigger than itself. Bodyshop owns animal rights and Method owns green cleaning. The brand that owns sustainability in its category will be tomorrow’s winner. Consider the battles which have already begun for the green throne between the powerhouse brands of the world. No longer are we seeing them saying, “Whatever you can do, I can do better.” It’s morphed into, “Whatever you can do, I can do greener.” If you want to stay relevant, you must own sustainability like Heinz owns ketchup.
Some brands have successfully integrated sustainability into the core of their brand like IBM’s Smarter Planet, which cleverly integrated IBM’s well-known ingenuity with sustainability. It should be a natural meeting between your brand and the world-bettering vision of your brand. The same applies to your campaign activities. The beer brand Corona—associated with sun, beach and fun—launched a beach cleaning effort in Spain where the collected garbage was turned into a hotel. Celebrities were then invited to spend the night. This is a simple campaign, which fits the brand and activates an easy-going beach crowd in a fun way.
Some companies are beginning to raise the bar by asking even bigger questions than that courageous and creative 12 year-old in Rio. Some of the world’s most prominent business leaders are questioning the role of publishing quarterly results, arguing that they shift focus towards short-term profits, drowning out long-term results and superseding the need to think more sustainably. We must realize that a sustainable future is a long game. We must be patient. It is a fundamental structural change. A habit of questioning the status quo and the assumptions you hold is essential to creativity and innovation and, therefore, to your business staying relevant. What is the point in asking yourself questions to which you already know the answer?
Ask big, scary, world-changing questions instead. They are timely and necessary—and fast becoming profitable, too.
Thomas Kolster is the author of Goodvertising, founder of the Goodvertising Agency and the world’s first collaborative communication platform dedicated to sustainability: WhereGoodGrows.
[Scary Image: Suzanne Tucker via Shutterstock]