Nowadays, Brand Management is a purpose to the great companies who want to get a better image in the customers’ mind. Indeed, the brand image is the reflect of the company. In this essay we will critically evaluate the following statement: “Consumers’ desire to have a deeper connection with brands, the expectation not just that they won’t ‘be bad’ but that they should actively ‘do good’, is not going to go away.
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The brands that have not yet caught on to this, and are not thinking about how they will embed environmental and social sustainability within their business model, will not be around in the next 50 years.” – Keith Weed, Unilever Chief Marketing and Communication Officer, 2016.
In a first part we will talk about the revolution through the companies’ supply. Then, in a second part, we will see the evidence of effectiveness by the success of these brands. Finally, we will conclude answering as to “how brands should address sustainability in their branding practice and strategy”.
(The information collected will be referenced in footnotes)
The revolution through the supply
Sustainable development does not change anything if it does not change supplies. Being “less bad” is not enough to “be good” – and as long as you do not change the supply, more often you do not change much. Because of the tools which measure the impact of a product throughout its life cycle, we now know that the use phase is often much more important than the production phase: thus, the automotive sector’ climate impact (or CO2 impact) is linked at 12% to factories and 80% to vehicles while driving – and the same goes for clothing such as jeans, 60% of which is caused by purchase by the customer (washing, pressing, ironing and end of life) .
But times are changing: 78% of European opinion leaders now believe that responsible products should be offered instead of conventional products, rather than complementing them . Over the innovators such as Patagonia, the great national stakeholders and major global groups are renowned for their commitment to changing most or all of their offerings in a few years. This is the end of green, organic or fair ranges for only “LoHaS” (Lifestyle of Health & Sustainability) consumers: now, sustainable development is the first lever innovation, to paraphrase a recent article in the Harvard Business Review .
The leaders of this movement opt for radical choices and no longer have scruples in explicitly linking, in their speech, sustainable development and business opportunities. General Electric aims to double its sales of green technologies , Philips gives himself five years for green products represent a third of its turnover, while Marks & Spencer, Nike or Starbucks have objectives on 100% of their supply .
These businesses are pointing us in the direction of business and sustainable development solutions that are finally embedded. They contribute together to build the vision of a certain innovation, which could be said to be sustainable, but which is undoubtedly simply the true innovation. In any case, the lesson that can be drawn from their experience is clearly stated: for sustainable development, the radical transformation of offers and innovation and marketing strategies is the new conquest to lead.
Proof of effectiveness by success
The good news is that brands that are moving in this direction also show better financial results: for example, the 2013 Havas Media study on meaningful brands (the brands that have placed the core of their mission well-being and quality of life) shows a stock market performance that is 120% higher than the rest of the market. Interestingly, it also establishes that 73% of brands could disappear today without consumers being affected – especially as only 20% are perceived as having a positive impact on consumers’ lives and that 71% of large companies should be actively engaged in solving social problems.
These examples show us that if the brand manages to put the issues of sustainable development at the heart of its main positioning, consistent with its products but also its values and history, then this commitment is a powerful source of resonance (with the concerns of the time), difference (compared to its competitors) and preferably (consumers). But also, no doubt, that consumers are more ready than brands, who are still reluctant to launch on a large scale the responsible offers that the market and the planet need.
Several international studies confirm this fundamental movement – notably that already mentioned on the “LoHaS”, which clearly establishes that the rise of sustainable development in consumer concerns is not a trend, but a profound cultural change that occurs in many countries. In twenty years, the proportion 20/80 was reversed, to the point that 88% of Europeans say they are interested in responsible consumption , in one way or another.
An example of the fact that innovation and branding are the new frontiers of sustainable development strategies: the way Marks & Spencer, through a very difficult period of its history, has put a tiger in the engine of its positioning in 2007 with a strong commitment to sustainable development – Plan A (“Because there is no plan B” to save the planet, and perhaps also to save Marks & Spencer…), organised around 180 commitments by 2020.
Keystone of this building, which benefited during its launch of a full week of visibility mobilizing all means of communication of the brand (press, display, POS in the store…): the ambition to become “the most sustainable brand in the world”, and the commitment that 50% of its products bear a guarantee related to sustainable development by 2015, then 100% of its products to 2020.
Already ahead of the 2015 target, 57% of Marks & Spencer products meet these requirements in 2014 . The pioneering and global commitment of the British brand is reflected in extremely encouraging results: stores, offices and warehouses are now 100% carbon neutral, “zero waste” and powered by green energy.
Global CO2 emissions have been reduced by 31% since 2007 and water consumption by 27%. More importantly, the group has launched a number of exemplary initiatives, such as the partnership with Oxfam to recover and re-market unwanted garments – which in the first three years had already reached two million consumers, seven millions of clothes, bringing in three million pounds to Oxfam and seven million net profits to Marks & Spencer (55% of customers use in store the coupon given to them in thanks by Oxfam against 5% for a classic “couponing” operation).
The profits from Plan A are now estimated at £145 million in 2013 alone, a figure to be compared with profits of £580 million in the same year. In total, since 2007, the cumulative profits from Plan A amount to £465 million , which Marks & Spencer was able to reinvest in pursuit of its environmental and social objectives. Results that show the way to the sector, and confirm the validity of this approach now confused with the strategy of the brand, conducted since 2010 under the slogan “How we do business”.
Brands that list sustainability in their positioning are the ones that do the best. Because if the responsible offer is generalized, it also means, no doubt, that sustainable development will no longer, tomorrow, simply limited to a few products or corporate strategies. After all, it is the brand that embodies the mission on a daily basis, beyond the always ephemeral, imitable and substitutable products, it is it that carries the commitment to improve the life of its customers – even of all its parts stakeholders – and it is she who commits her name and reputation. The fact is when you involve your customers in a task as do better for the environment and improve the life, they feel themselves important. If we take the Marks & Spencer’ example, it is showing us that the sustainability development’ way is the key to straightening out the slope when a company is in a “disadvantageous” situation.
It is obvious that the brands who don’t include social and environmental sustainability in their business model risk to be “crushed” by the competition who, them, understand the current situation and the purpose to take care of the environment while involving its customers and while doing more benefices. There is no need to think the opposite, the market of the products who take care of the climate change has proven its worth. It gives more benefices, more turnover due to a new customer segment attracted (The “LoHaS”), and a deeper relationship with the customers who, today, are more interesting about the sustainability development and their environment. And plus, this is the future, their future, our future.
However, sustainable development is not enough if a company, or a brand, want to vehicle a strong image and does not want to risk a failure in his market. The understanding of its customers does not have to be overlooked. But this is not the subject of this essay.
To conclude this essay and answer at the question “how brands should address sustainability in their branding practice and strategy”; A company, a brand, should be a sustainable brand. And how to be that sustainable brand? Simply create “sustainable topics” and involve the customers to adopt a responsible practice in their day-to-day.
That kind of initiative create new purposes and possibilities for a company. It leads to a better world and to a rise in brand value creating by these loyal customers who feel themselves important and concerned in a situation of climate changes for example. It may be easily used in a marketing topics to create more importance around this trend of sustainable development. Being a sustainable brand should not be an image, it should be a way to live for a company and its brand.