Opinion: Should sustainability be part of your brand essence?
Debating the importance of brand consistency and relevance in our fast-changing world, it struck me that the biggest challenge today is the same whether you’re an individual or a brand – how to stop damaging the planet. For brands to succeed, they need to understand and respect the constraints under which consumers now live, and will live with in the future. The brands that embrace this will help to deliver a better, balanced future.
We only have to look at nature to see that before we started messing with it, it was, for the most part, in perfect balance. Picture an oak tree as it transforms through the year; it’s the same tree but adapts to each season demonstrating the perfect combination of change and stability for successful continuity. It sounds like the recipe for a great brand: stable, strong, established, inspirational, adaptable.
Successful brands embrace change when they need to and when consumers want them to, but they only innovate what really counts rather than implementing change for change’s sake. With technology advancing at breakneck speeds, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that change is always for the better. But while technology has made our lives easier and more convenient, some things haven’t changed. I still commute to work on the same train as my father and grandfather; the journey’s the same, but the experience around it, the way we book tickets, for example, has been simplified, made better.
Simplicity is the key to better innovation and best change. Think about how long it has taken us to go from a cash society to (almost) cashless society. Each change, from coins to cards to contactless, began as a struggle, but over time we embraced it because it was more convenient. But as technology simplifies our lives, we become more demanding – we’ve turned into a ‘want it now’ society. Yet at the same time, we feel guilty about the impact on the planet, so we demand that our favourite brands put sustainability at the heart of their business. We want reassurance and convenience without compromise.
The biggest change a brand is likely to face is moving from a linear to a circular economy. While this will certainly require a change in strategy that puts more emphasis on sustainability, it doesn’t have to change the brand’s essence. McDonalds, for example, has put sustainability and healthy eating at the heart of its business strategy, but its brand essence – family friendly, fun, fast food, (or for the more cynical, the quest for global domination) – is still the same.
As consumers, we like the idea of saving the planet, but we’re reluctant to relinquish our convenience in order to do so; therefore we expect the brands we love to do it for us. For companies like Tesla, Lush and Patagonia preserving the environment is as much a part of their brand essence as the products they sell. But what about Apple? Last year, the company announced that all its global facilities were powered with 100% clean energy. For some technology manufacturers, it might feel incongruous to shout about green credentials but Apple has built sustainability into its mission. It describes the brand as “dedicated to making the best products on earth, and to leaving the world better than we found it.” As such, a move to improve Apple’s carbon footprint feels completely in line with its brand essence.
There will always be naysayers and, sadly, this puts off many brands (oil companies and car manufacturers, for example) from talking about positive change for fear of being labelled hypercritical. As much as we like to criticise those we consider to be doing damage, it doesn’t stop us from jumping in our car or enjoying deliveries from gas-guzzling Amazon trucks when it suits us. They are ‘doing damage’ because we provide the demand for it. If we really want to save the planet, we must support those companies who are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet to tell their sustainability stories, even if it feels like a drop in the ocean compared to their core business. They may be taking baby steps, but if those footprints are heading in the right direction from a carbon economy to a reduced carbon or carbon neutral economy, then we should accept it as a change for good.
Ultimately, when considering a step change, every brand needs to examine whether the changes they’re making are relevant. Are they valuable? From a consumer perspective do they make life simpler and from a business perspective, will they be profitable? Are they sustainable – do they contribute to the health of the planet? And do they have momentum? If you answer no to any of those questions, perhaps the changes you are considering are not the ones you should be making.
Simon Wright is the managing director of Greenwich Design and co-founder of the Chemistry Works