Lateral brand thinking may help us deliver more enduring, charismatic sustainability.
By Guy Champniss
I am not sure the dots are being connected. In fact, I think there are more dots being added (rather than lines between them) -- and they’re being added farther and farther apart.
I’m talking about the link between sustainability and CSR, and the marketing and brand teams.
At a structural level, new research by GlobeScan and BSR highlights how little contact brand and marketing teams have with the CSR and sustainability folks in large businesses. As obvious as it may sound, if you’re not talking to each other, then you cannot listen to each other, and you certainly cannot spark off each other to create great ideas that lead to engaging experiences farther afield.
Consumers Want the Experience of Sustainability
It’s fair to say that for consumers, it really is all about experiences today. Where once it may have been about ubiquity of product, then about price, and then about service, now it’s about experience. That should be music to most marketers’ ears, as experiences always outrun transactions, and present far better opportunities for consumers to get closer to other consumers, and to get closer to the brand.
They are also driven far more by emotion than rational assessment -- which should be another check mark on the right side of the table for what brands want in their relationships, both internal and external.
Report the Drama, Not the Documentary
With that in mind, on the few occasions when brand and marketing do talk to CSR and sustainability, why is the output so typically data-driven? Why do both sides reduce the most important -- the most strategic -- conversation for businesses today to an almost Morse-code like tap of information for consumers?
While the reasons for this are many and complex - and beyond the scope or point of this blog post - this still represents the dominant approach at most organizations. Discounting the rare exceptions, we’re still very much in the realm of what we could call ‘reporting the documentary’.
Yet ironically, brands are far better at producing drama.
In previous posts, I've often talked about a unifying, central concept that underpins the brand in a broader social context -- what we call the brand’s Social Signature. The Social Signature tries to capture the little bit of code that presents an opportunity for the brand to not just engage around one type of value for the consumer, but all forms of value for all stakeholders.
It tries to surface the greater potential of the brand to create distinct but interlocking forms of immediate and embedded value for consumers, employees and civil society (leading to more value for shareholders).
The Social Signature: Connecting the Dots of the Sustainability Story
In some cases, this idea of a Social Signature captures people’s imagination, drives the process towards uncovering core insights, and galvanizes action towards a common goal -- common to both the brand and sustainability teams.
But in others, people wonder what it has to do with CSR at all.
They worry that if they’re not reporting on what’s happening in the supply chain, or they’re not remaining focused on a cause-related campaign, then it doesn't really fall under CSR and sustainability. If we lose sight of the seriousness of the issue, we’re no longer trying to solve it.
I think that is wrong. This is where the dots are being missed.
If CSR and sustainability are to be central to a business’s strategy, then there has to be an abandonment of this positive discrimination towards these areas. Just because the issues and consequences are potentially dire, it doesn’t mean these apocalyptic outcomes need to be coded into the minutiae of data-driven brand communications.
And that’s the whole point of the Social Signature idea -- to help a brand see beyond this granularity, and think how to address a more fundamental social tension -- a tension that if removed, could deliver a quantum leap forward in CSR and sustainability terms.
The Social Signature model asks brands and CSR teams not to think literally about how to work together. It asks that we think laterally about how to build together.
Use Big Ideas Built on Solid Ideals
For me, some of the most effective CSR and sustainability campaigns don’t even use these words. Think about VW’s Fun Theory campaign, or Toyota’s Ideas for Good. These are initiatives that have made stronger and permanent inroads into social improvement than arguably any traditional CSR-led campaign.
The most powerful route to really engaging brand, marketing, CSR and sustainability lies in inclusive social marketing campaigns -- big ideas built on solid ideals, driven by authentic ambition.
As an example, I was recently invited to speak at a conference for a global leader in the beauty and personal care sector. Despite a real interest and commitment from them to embed CSR and sustainability into the core of the business, when it came to conversations about marketing and communication, it proved very difficult to convince the room that the brand’s most compelling contribution to the wider debate could be around making sustainable lifestyles: aspirational, hopeful, social and beautiful.
This was the social tension that was missing -- that society knows what the bad stuff looks like, but not what the good stuff could look like -- and that through a clear expression of their Social Signature, they could potentially lead on.
To get to these insights is certainly easier said than done, I understand. But there needs to be an appetite to embark on these journeys. And this hunger requires one founding ‘eureka’ moment within the business.
Discover Your Brand Value Principles
For CSR and sustainability to really take root within the core of the business, and for the brand to really deliver enduring multifaceted value to all with whom it comes into contact, we need to recognize this: it’s no longer about refining your brand value proposition (to be sold). It’s about discovering your brand value principles (to be shared).
If we get this right, the brand is unleashed as a value driver, and sustainability will finally have the opportunity to emerge as a charismatic natural outcome, rather than be seen as a curmudgeonly spanner in the cogs of the communications machine.