3 Key Takeaways From Sustainable Brands Conference

By the time I saw the Metrolink train billboard, it was too late. I was already cheerfully guzzling natural resources and spitting out emissions along the 5 Freeway from L.A. to San Diego. I gasped and shook my head at my stupidity and selfishness for driving to Sustainable Brands, which took place June 6 - 9. Conference check-in officials seemed to sense my crime and asked, “Did you take the train or are you a hypocritical fraud who drove? And are you sharing a hotel room or wasting resources in a room by yourself?” 

Maybe the interrogation wasn't exactly like that, but these questions were a reflection that Sustainable Brands is: 

  • Authentically living its purpose, critical in any industry to gaining consumer trust.
  • Using the “power of brands to influence societal aspirations” as KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Sustainable Brands founder and CEO, challenged us to do.
  • Arming themselves with data to better understand attendee behavior and optimize their offer and communication. I bet/hope next year they promote sustainable travel and facilitate ways for attendees to minimize their travel footprint.

In addition to setting a good example, Sustainable Brands provided guidance on how to act on and communicate brand purpose to a variety of key audiences, not just consumers. Three key takeaways:

Build a business case to win internal sustainability buy-in 

Many attendees I met were corporate social responsibility professionals, not marketers or executives. As such, much of the event was devoted to learning how to optimize conversations with marketers and finance colleagues, to convince them to integrate purpose and sustainability into the business. 

  • Establish a business case: Convince your corporate leadership of the growth opportunity that sustainability presents, using facts like: “Green Giants,” companies with revenue of over $1 billion on sustainable products, have shown 11% more stock market growth than their competitors, per Freya Williams, author of Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses.
  • Talk their language: Greg Unruh, sustainability editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, says we CSR pros tend to speak different dialects than our investor relations counterparts and we should connect with them using their language. For example, we often present in Powerpoint when they might better understand Excel.
  • Latch onto existing programs: If you're having trouble getting your marketing colleagues to support CSR initiates, Ricardo Caceres of Coca-Cola suggests finding initiatives your brand is already putting money behind (i.e., Christmas for Coca-Cola) and build your CSR into it. You can then use case studies of your own company's success to drive a broader sustainability conversation.

Help your employees find and live their personal purpose

I presumed the conference tagline “activating purpose” pertained just to the brands we represent, but on opening night a Buddhist monk urged us all to find our personal purpose. And then speakers from LinkedIn and PwC, among others, made it clear that employees of all ages want purpose-driven work.

A critical element of integrating and activating your brand's purpose is making sure your employees understand and buy into the brand purpose (which takes more than just top- down declarations of purpose), and how their efforts contribute to it. This helps not only with authenticating your brand's purpose, but when purpose is top of mind within the organization it increases the chances of shining through to consumers.

Talk sustainability only when you need to

One of the common traits Freya Williams uncovered about “Green Giants” is they have mainstream appeal and don't just cater to tree huggers. Here are two examples of brands targeting the masses with sustainable products:

Everyone was talking about Nike Flyknit. About its $1 billion+ revenue, its minimal materials and reduced landfill waste, and how Nike leads with messages about performance, only subtly mentioning sustainability for consumers who are looking for it.

When Green Works cleaner by Clorox launched, its packaging had conflicting cues, including a prominent “all natural” label which would appeal to tree huggers but deter Clorox lovers who believe natural ingredients are less effective. The packaging also showcased a Clorox logo, appealing to those wanting a powerful clean, but deterring tree huggers offended by toxicity of Clorox. In updated packaging, Green Works has made changes that suggest an attempt for mass appeal. They've removed the Clorox logo and emphasized efficacy with the tagline “powerful cleaning, done naturally.” Case study presented by Omar Rodriguez-Villa of Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business.

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