Friday, August 1, 2014

The Sustainable Brand

"Sustainability" takes many forms and means different things to different audiences.  This blog is devoted--quite generally--to corporate environmental sustainability, with a hope that corporations will play a part in ending the mad-cap dash down the path to climate chaos.

But in that context, other types of sustainability come in to play--not the least of which is the durability of the corporate brand.  While some would love to see particularly destructive brands sink below the rising sea levels of global warming, those companies that choose to become part of the climate solution are not only "doing the right thing" they are demonstrating an awareness that long-term impacts on the environment will have long-term impacts--both positive and negative--on corporate balance sheets.  There will be winners and losers as the global climate de-stablizes.  For example, heavy construction firms that provide solutions to rising sea levels stand to profit handsomely.  Hospitality conglomerates with portfolios of beachfront properties somewhat less so.

Studies from both the United States and the United Kingdom continue to trumpet the rise of consumer preference for sustainably sourced and produced goods--but there is a rising tide of skepticism about greenwashing.  So the takeaway is clear: those firms that can truly adapt their business practices to changing environmental conditions aren't doing just the smart thing operationally, they are creating incredible opportunities to burnish the brand.  How?  Because such savvy, when born of genuine sustainability ethic and backed by meaningful changes in business operations, is loyalty gold among consumers.  (One note: As always, price is an important issue among consumers.  This often means re-framing how the market thinks about "value" in order to include sustainability attributes--but that is a discussion for a separate post.)

So when we speak about "the sustainable brand", we really need to think in two terms: the first is the ability of the business that underlies (and gives rise to) the brand to thrive in a world beset by the unpredictability of climate change--certain to bring about very significant environmental regulation; the second is the opportunity--based on how the company conducts itself on environmental issues--to capture value in the marketplace as a responsible corporate citizen.

I recently read an article that posited the following: "Protecting the Brand is the Riskiest Strategy."  It got me thinking of the vital inter-play between sustainable business practices, and sustainable companies, and that fact that you can't merely change core operations to address climate change: you have to integrate them into the corporate DNA.  In the end, that DNA is most vividly expressed in the corporate brand.  So for those of us in the business of corporate sustainability, understanding the interplay between brand and operations is an important and often neglected domain.

Setting aside for the time being that "protecting the brand" is a goal and not a strategy, I am unaware of any convention--at least among brand experts--that advocates a laissez-faire brand strategy as a path to safety.  True, brands are to be guarded jealously, but protecting brand equity is far different from leaving it to the fickle winds of fate, which is the only result when you "do nothing".
That said, I wouldn't argue Mr. Steinberg's implication that--in a dynamic, global economy--doing nothing amounts to brand neglegence, and would certainly agree that many iconic brands are in decay.  The driving force behind that erosion, however, is more likely to be poor product development than a failure of the brand strategy--the unhappy inversion of how Apple's (or, more accurately, Steve Jobs') maniacal obsession with design, product features and market re-invention rocketed the company's brand to unrivaled heights.
Atari didn't die because of a poor brand strategy, any more than Cadillac is no longer "the Cadillac of Automobiles" because the brand team took a long nap.  Both companies got passed in the fast lane by better, smarter, more innovative competitors who had their finger on the pulse of the market and were not beset by the sclerosis of complacency.  the point is simple: brand is a whole-system corporate imperative, not something that can be cultivated, nurtured and grown by an isolated box on a complex org chart.

If you believe the old saw that "a brand is a promise realized", then you understand that  brand manager's job does not start and finish at the threshold to the Corp Comm department.  Rather, the brand team must work with senior management and the product team to ensure the business is capable of fulfilling the promise of the past--quality products that have true value for customers.  For all involved in the business of brand-building, it is thus helpful to recall the words of the essayist Hugh Walpole: "Don't play for safety; it's the most dangerous thing in the world."

The sustainable brand is much like the sustainable company, both of which analogize to the sustainable planet.  They require great care and vigilance, and boldness in their stewardship.  The companies that incorporate sustainability into their mission will--by necessity--incorporate that ethic into their brand.  There is risk in doing so.  But current business practices are systemically unsustainable: they emit more greenhouse gases than the environment can absorb, poison water tables with fracking fluids and destroy vital virgin forestlands for timber and farmland.  And there is far greater risk--almost to the point of certainty--with this business-as-usual accommodation.  Because when a natural system collapses, all symbiots collapse as well.

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