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Brand Marketing & Sustainability: What's Your Social Signature?

Are most sustainability initiatives nothing more than branding exercises?

Submitted by: Guy Champniss

Posted: Mar 29, 2012 – 09:31 AM EST

Series: Brand Valued

Tags: brand, marketing, csr, trust, social signature


'A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.'

Henry Ford said it first, but many more have repeated that over the last year or two. Many more.

The pressure on businesses to define themselves and demonstrate capabilities beyond profit and their consumers is considerable. Surely this demand presents the perfect opportunity for sustainability to move front and center, and really inform and energize the efforts from the brand and marketing teams?

It seems not.

In the last post, we examined the frequent disconnect between the brand and sustainability teams – even in businesses that are striding forward with ambitious sustainability goals on the supply-side using Unilever as an example.

Our primary argument:

This lack of true interdependence and collaboration may well stem from neither area wanting to be seen as a function or product of the other. So, how to unite and move forward in an era that increasingly values the qualitative and social as much as the quantitative and environmental?

One possible answer lies in what we call the business's Social Signature. In this post, I'd like to explore this concept in more detail: where it aligns with traditional brand strategy and where it is wholly distinct, potentially far closer to the heart of the business.

The Social Signature: Your Brand & Sustainability

The Social Signature is the single strand of original code that represents the founding ideas of the business at the broadest and most inclusive level. If a Value Proposition attempts to capture the benefits of the business’s brand to consumers or customers, then the Social Signature is the Grand Value Proposition: value - in all forms - not just to consumers or customers, but to a far wider set of stakeholders.

The reason we believe the Social Signature can bring together brand and sustainability, is that it pre-empts and informs them both: it lays the foundations for the brand strategy, and it steers the sustainability strategy in terms of helping surface what will make the greatest impact. In short, the Social Signature of the firm should be the infrastructure that holds not just these two functions together, but connects other organizational functions as inextricably.

But that connection often seems to be failing in business today: things get lost in the day-to-day business of the business. But without a clear understanding and articulation of the business’s Social Signature, internal identity and external images will be out of sync, and the integrity of the organisation begins to falter.

Traditionally this could be glossed over or fixed at a more superficial level, but in today’s interconnected and expectation-laden world, such a failure of integrity has the potential to undermine the business in terms of building, managing and leveraging trusted relationships across its stakeholders.

The Components of the Social Signature

Within our model, the Social Signature focuses on developing and integrating insights and foresights within three distinct stakeholder groups:

  1. Consumers (or customers),
  2. Employees, and
  3. Society as a whole.

Besides these stakeholder groups, the Social Signature model distinguishes between Direct Value, and Indirect Value.

The former describes the more traditional outputs associated with the business such as product or service benefits for the consumer. In the context of the Social Signature, the outputs for employees and society as a whole are equally important.

Indirect Value, in comparison, looks at the longer-term outcomes that are brought about by the activities of the business. So where Direct Value focuses on what the business delivers via its activities, Indirect Value focuses on what the business enables.

[READ: Business, Brand & Your Social Signature]

We believe these complex expectations from business mean opportunities to differentiate and add value are increasingly easy to find in this 'enabling outcome' domain.

The Social Signature is, therefore, informed by - and drives consistency across - five distinct focus areas:

  1. Consumers
  2. Employees and Society
  3. Direct value and indirect value (see Fig 1)

If we compare this to more established approaches - where the brand has focused primarily on customer output (with cause-related campaigns bringing in societal outputs), and the sustainability function on societal outcome - we start to see where inconsistencies appear.

The Social SignatureReinforcing Business Integrity via the Social Signature

In cases where we have tested this framework, the resulting Social Signature emerges as a single, unifying and catalysing perspective that integrates and supports the delivery of value to these various stakeholders. In doing so, it highlights weaknesses and ensures integrity within the organisation at several levels including:

  • Structural Integrity: integration of departments
  • Partnership Integrity: alliances with complementary organisations
  • Delivery Integrity: consistency in communication planning
  • Participational Integrity: employee attraction, engagement and retention

In truth, the framework is relatively simple.

But populating it with the most accurate and targeted insights and foresights for each constituent group, together with the synthesis required to reveal the underlying Social Signature is another story. It’s early days for us, but the results to date are fascinating, and the response from companies has been hugely rewarding. As I said last time, I believe it is not a process of re-design for those close to the brand, but rather a journey of rediscovery for the whole organisation.

Brand and Sustainability: True Love or a Marriage of Convenience?

To explore the Social Signature concept in more detail, as well as discuss the broader challenges and opportunities of bringing brand and sustainability closer together, we're doing a complimentary webinar on May 19, 2012 at 11:00am EST, moderated by KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media. We will be joined by:

We'll be offering fresh data on the increasing expectations of business, case studies of where businesses are succeeding in meeting these expectations, and specific examples of the Social Signature model in action.

We'll also introduce a global tracking service in conjunction with GlobeScan, identifying how the Social Signature process can drive integration across the business in this complex, but increasingly important social context. (Register here). 

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

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