The top ten principles of sustainable branding

I recently attended the Sustainable Brands Conference in London at the end of November as The Futures Company where I work were media partners at the event. It was a really great forum for brand managers, strategists and sustainability leaders to talk all things sustainable and what this means for brands and businesses. I’ve summarised the key findings from the 2 days into 10 principles that brands need to think about in order to drive a sustainable future.

1.       Think beyond the environment

Sustainability is a big word and crucially, it isn’t just about the environment. Social, economic and environmental are considered the three interconnected pillars of sustainability so brands need to take note of all three.

Social and economic sustainability dimensions are well reflected in the Global Handwashing Day initiative (supported by Unilever’s Lifebuoy soap brand). This campaign encouraged hand-washing behaviours in developing countries to reduce the spread of fatal diseases, ultimately saving lives and limiting medical and economic resource pressures.

Environmental and economic sustainability dimensions are being seen most readily in the growth of ‘sharing’ initiatives such as AirBNB and ZipCar, which seek to offer consumers and businesses a way to share their resources (in this case, homes and cars) in order to save money (and the planet!).

Think about how your brand can think beyond environmental considerations in order to build a more responsible, sustainable and profitable business

2.       Know your audience

It’s important to know your target audience and what is driving them. Despite sustainability concerns being steady amongst consumers, purchasing decisions in most categories are rarely driven by sustainability as a priority.

Brands that understand this are positioned to appeal to what consumers really want in a way that fits with the way they currently behave. Sustainability becomes an ancillary benefit, but as it sits within an existing attitude or behaviour, it helps to build sustainable habits.

Green Deal is a great example of this in action. The Government-backed scheme where consumers are driven by the benefit of saving money on energy-saving home improvements, saving the planet becomes a bonus.

Think about how your brand can position themselves to appeal to what is really driving consumers and ‘weave in’ sustainable benefits

3.       Imagine the future

Thinking sustainably will rarely deliver instant gains in terms of finance or reputation, it’s better to think long-term. However, this means the daunting task of predicting the future. The important thing for brands and businesses to think about is what the future might look like, planning sustainability initiatives that fit potential future scenarios. This will help to future-proof their sustainability agenda and ensure it is focused on long-term change.

BMW i is BMW’s visionary sustainability initiative which imagines the future of the car industry as a mobility services industry.  BMW positions themselves as a mobility services company combining visionary design of purpose-built vehicles and intelligent mobility services with a wholly sustainable value chain.

 Think about where your category and consumer might be in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time and how your business and brand needs to adapt to be sustainable and profitable

4.       Reinvent your business

Sustainability challenges facing the world are huge and far-reaching. According to Paul Gilding, global thought leader on the Future of Economics – to avoid a 2 degree increase in global warming, we would have to remove the coal, oil and gas industries in the next 20 years. This level of change is difficult to comprehend.

So in order to drive a sustainable world this isn’t about thinking in baby steps, it’s about systemic change to business models in order to drive holistic global change.

Chipotle is a unique example of a systemically sustainable business model that is written into the foundations of the brand.

Think about how you can build value and reduce inefficiency throughout your whole supply chain and what this could mean for the stories that your brand can now tell

5.       Create a path of disruption

No one said sustainability challenges were easy to address.

It’s important to think beyond tried and tested ideas and embrace brave, disruptive and unexpected solutions. Don’t be afraid to innovate in order to lead. It’s often the brave ones that stand out and achieve more.

Barefoot College is an NGO working in developing countries to create sustainable rural communities. Their initiative Barefoot Solar Engineers aims to educate women to be Solar Engineers to supply their own communities with sustainable light sources – a unique project that combines environmental neutrality, education and female empowerment.

Think about how you can ‘park’ tried and tested ideas and generate bold and disruptive thinking that will challenge the status quo

6.       Don’t do it alone

When we think about addressing sustainability challenges, two heads are certainly better than one. We’ve all got different skills and expertise, so working together can achieve great things.

It’s important not only for brands and businesses to consider communicating widely internally in order to share knowledge and skills, it’s also important to consider how using external partnerships can help to achieve significant sustainability goals.

A recent example of a sustainability partnership in action is the B&Q and Cabinet Office’s Loft Insulation Service. This service, trialled in 2011, allowed consumers to insulate their lofts at a reduced cost, whilst offering additional services such as loft clearances through working with a national charity.

Think about your business limitations in terms and knowledge and skills and how you could co-operate with a partner to plug the gaps, capture your audience’s attention and make your sustainability goals a reality

7.       Be true to your brand

The most successful brands have the following elements in common. They all have a single-minded and unique brand story based on business truths that sets them apart from their competitors. The way that they talk about themselves is always clear and consistent.

That means when thinking about sustainability initiatives, these should never be divorced from the brand. They need to be intimately woven into the brand story, reflect the brand’s purpose and speak in its voice.

Axe’s Showerpooling  is a fantastic example of a brand that has translated its core values into a relevant sustainability initiative that serves to support its masculine and irreverent brand values and reflects its purpose of ‘Making men more attractive’.

Think about your core equities as a brand (purpose, values, tonality) and how you can stretch these towards new and relevant sustainability innovations and initiatives

8.       Lose the design stereotypes

According to Dragon Rouge, in 2030 sustainability will be implicit in everything we do – from small businesses, to global organisations, to the guy next door.

This will mean that dated stereotypical images and references will have seen their dying day.

Remember, it’s important to engage consumers around sustainability. Brown packaging may seem like a good indicator today, but how will this resonate in 2030 when sustainability has moved up a notch?

Method is a great example of a brand that has turned sustainable hygiene products into a status symbol rather than lending on worthy references, laid-back ‘hippy’ sentiments or defaulting to brown packaging.

Think about who your brand is targeting and what they want from you in order to ensure your sustainable design is relevant and current

9.       Keep it simple

The world of sustainability isn’t always easy to engage with. Some people assume that being sustainable amounts to radical (and expensive!) change in their lives.  When this change manifests itself in language such as ‘Collaborative Consumption’, ‘Repurposing’ and ‘Eco’, it’s difficult for people to get a firm grasp on what that all really means, what they need to do and whether it will cost them extra.

It’s necessary to make any sustainability initiatives easy to understand and easy to action.

As Julian Borra from Saatchi and Saatchi S cleverly put it; “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a Mission Statement’.” By changing the language associated with sustainability, you can open up to new audiences and make it easier for people to engage.

The Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog campaign is a fantastic example of paring down sustainability to one key action – purchasing products that feature the ‘frog’ certification – all couched in easy to understand language through the medium of a tongue in cheek Youtube video.

Think about what you want people to do and the language you use to describe it and always make it easy to achieve and understand

10.   It’s alright to be wrong

There is no exact science to developing successful sustainability initiatives, so sometimes brands don’t get it right the first time around.

It’s important to remember that brands do get it wrong and then bounce back, after all, you only really learn from your mistakes.

In 1993, H&M launched an unsuccessful range called ‘Nature Calling’ made from unbleached cotton and specific dyes. The problem was that it was never considered fashionable. In 2010, H&M launched a more successful organic cotton range with the principles of fashion and added value at the heart of the collection. H&M has made no secret of this mistake, which shows great strength of character as an organisation, helping to build consumer trust through transparency.

Think about what you can learn from the mistakes you’ve made in terms of your past sustainability initiatives and make sure you don’t make a secret of it, you’ll be found out!