I don’t think it’s been done yet, but I would love to see some research that explores how visible and instrumental the brand team is in the sustainability team’s life, and vice versa. My hunch: They barely know each other.
This is a challenge on several levels.
It keeps the sustainability efforts of the company firmly on the supply-side. They remain doggedly rooted in the supply chain, manufacturing and, at a stretch, employee engagement.
Sustainability-driven communication, even to consumers, remains a data- and reporting-driven exercise, and so is limited to the language of the internal business.
It's been said for a long time now: those in charge of the brand need to find ways to bring the business’s sustainability story to life for all those who do not live and breathe the intricacies (and ambiguities) of such lengthy reporting. But it has yet to happen, despite serious attempts from both sides to cross the often cavernous divide.
Business, Brand & The Social Signature
Perhaps, rather than seeing a divide between brand and sustainability, would it be more effective to see sustainability as a conduit between brand and the core purpose of the business? As the broad sustainability debate shifts from quantitative environmental impact issues to include the more qualitative social outcomes, many businesses are beginning to reassess what it is they actually want to achieve in a changing world.
After all, as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) says, no business can succeed in a society that fails.
So rather than trying to bolt the brand on to the sustainability efforts of the firm, or drive the sustainability efforts into the brand’s messaging, we argue that a far more effective process would be to use sustainability as a means to explore what it is the business genuinely represents, which in turn informs the brand.
Yes, we recognize that brands invariably interpret and represent many of the values of the business, but that is our point: it is already a complex and engineered interpretation (at best) or a dramatic reduction (at worst) of these values.
If the fit is to be good, we need to be able to go back and tap into a clean signal, not one that has been distorted and filtered for other purposes. This is part of the reason why the two sides of the business are still struggling to get along.
And for those businesses that claim that these two functions work well together, the results are not great - it’s still data and reporting, in the brand environment.
Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan
Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan is a perfect example for our argument. This is a complex and ambitious undertaking, but it is all supply-side, with little demand-side consideration.
Yes, it’s being communicated to consumers via the Unilever brand, but ostensibly as data and fact.
At one level because the business has considered sustainability goals on one side and then tried to embed these within the brand on the other.
This takes nothing away from Unilever and their efforts however.
Quite the opposite: their work in this area continues to amaze, and we applaud them. But whilst applauding, there are so many opportunities they - and many others - are missing. Opportunities exist to migrate these incredible efforts genuinely across to the demand side. This is not about aligning sustainability within the business, but rather using sustainability to align the business.
The good news, is that we don’t believe this involves wholesale change and disruption within business, for the simple fact that almost every business on this planet was started with a clear social purpose in mind; a founding idea of social value, which carried with it a clear Social Signature, even if it was implicit.
This is not a case of re-invention. It’s a case of remembering.