Mind the Gap

Colwyn Elder


Bridging the gap between sustainability and brands

The popular Sustainable Brands conference Copenhagen brings together brand and purpose experts, sustainability gurus and passionate change-makers from across the world. So it was rather startling yesterday when it was revealed that only 30% of the companies attending have actually made sustainability central to their communications.

This bomb was dropped by the Forest Stewardship Council’s Loa Dalgaard Worm during her keynote speech. The stunned (and rather embarrassed)  reaction to her teams analysis of websites and communications from attendees was tangible given all these companies have elected to attend a conference on sustainability as “the bridge to better brands”. Which begs the question – why aren’t they using sustainability to build brand value?

Perhaps we need to acknowledge, that in the reality of many companies, marketing and sustainability functions sit on either side of a great divide. One is about selling, the other responsibility, and rarely the two shall meet.

Yet ironically, the past decade has seen the rise and near obsession with Brand Purpose. Marketing and business press are awash with headlines telling us that today’s consumers are looking to buy purpose driven brands, and that they’re willing to pay more for the privilege.

Within advertising and communication, purpose is all pervasive. Everyone’s using it or doing it, and if they aren’t, then they’re wishing that they were! It’s the stuff of proprietary tools and new business wins. ‘Done right’ purpose has the potential to unlock creativity, captivate consumers and crack award winning campaigns.

But there is a darker side to all this purpose fanfare. In too many cases, the focus on purpose is a focus on fiction. Emotional messaging designed to motivate consumers and employees alike, but lacking effectiveness in terms of real change and impact.

Isn’t the whole point of purpose that it goes beyond marketing and selling? Is it not about respect for humanity and the world we live in? Is it not about having a reason for being that serves society beyond profit? Is this not the reason why everybody loves it and wants to buy into it in the first place?

Sustainability must be the driving force behind corporate and brand purpose. Without the solid foundation of real hardworking change then purpose is merely hot air. Yet it doesn’t work this way. Remember the great divide? As long as purpose sits solely within the marketing function then the purpose of purpose is to sell product. It’s effectively just another brand proposition to appeal to Millenial values and/or the higher order needs of our target audience as we move up the brand ladder from functional benefits towards self actualisation. And this is where communication breaks down. This is why purpose so often goes wrong. Motivational intent and message are misaligned – remember the Pepsi fiasco. And when it goes wrong it goes badly wrong, creating mistrust, reinforcing divisions, and effectively doing the opposite of what it intended.

To communicate purpose with any conviction, business first has to earn the right. Otherwise it’s just an empty point of view in a bigger conversation. Purpose means taking a stand, and taking a risk, not just in what you say, but ultimately with what you do. Brand values direct behaviour, not just tone of voice. And yes, voice has the power to start debates and change conversations, but it’s what you do that gives your voice it’s authority.

At Futerra we believe action powers advertising and combine the logic of sustainability strategy with the magic of powerful creative to deliver a sliding scale of good. This approach successfully bridges the gap between sustainability and marketing whilst honouring the reality of business today.

In the best case scenario we believe passionately that sustainability is a billion dollar business opportunity. Business with a purpose beyond profit is achieved through a business model that has purpose at its heart. Here brands talk purpose with the utmost authenticity – it is their founding principle and reason for being eg. Tom’s shoes.

On the other hand, Partnering for purpose enables brands to bridge the gap through partnership with a charitable cause. By lending their money, voice and potentially other infrastructure to support the cause they earn the right to communicate the partnership in a credible way that builds brand value eg. Pampers & Unicef.

Brand purpose sits somewhere in-between. It looks for moments of truth at the intersection between people and brands but within the context of a sustainable society and world. These brands want to move beyond external partnerships and align internally by making commitments to sustainable development eg. Jigsaw’s recent defense of immigration.

By bridging the divide between marketing and sustainability, brands can effectively deliver both story and substance, action and advertising in a way that is powerful and on point. Which means attendees at a “brand and sustainability” conference will actually be acting on both.



Posted by Colwyn Elder

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