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Business, Brand & Your Social Signature©

Use sustainability to explore your company’s core and the branding will flow from there.

Submitted by: Guy Champniss

Posted: Feb 20, 2012 – 10:05 AM EST

Series: Brand Valued

Tags: sustainability, brand, leadership, marketing, business


By Guy Champniss

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

leavesPerhaps, 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.

This is more than just the brand. This is a business’s Social Signature©: a unique mix of characteristics that are driven by deep-seated desires to deliver social value to all of those with whom a business interacts. While much of that value will be focused on consumer, we must recognize that value flows to the panoply of other stakeholders for the business.

In short, the Social Signature© is a base-level architecture upon which an entire operating system for business has been built: an operating system that has given rise to a particular brand in most cases. The brand becomes a manifestation of aspects of this Social Signature, in the context of a specific product or service, and a specific audience.

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.


Unilever's Brand WagonAt one level because the business has considered sustainability goals on one side and then tried to embed these within the brand on the other.

Unilever has identified a series of tangible targets and conscientiously attached them to the business ideas (products). What it has not done is reflect and understand why those sustainability goals are important and how they relate to the core purpose of the business. In other words, Unilever has not identified its unique Social Signature© that represents the founding and enduring ideas of the business.

Using Sustainability To Align The Business

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.

To further explore this notion of Social Signature© within the business, and how it can inform and unite both the sustainability and brand functions, 1d9&co will be running a free webinar with GlobeScan and other contributors [more details to follow]. Our hope is that a mix of fresh data from GlobeScan’s extensive research and our thinking around how best to really utilize the prowess and expertise of business might just be the perfect marriage.

It may just be the perfect place for brand and sustainability to finally meet.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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