Ask big scary world-changing questions
World changing questions

One word your brand must own: Sustainability

In 1992 at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a 12 year-old girl by the name of Severn Cullis-Suzuki delivered a speech that silenced the room with its apparent frankness, “I’m only a child, yet I know that we’re all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal.” Her delivery was devoid of politics and exhibited a cunning logic that only children and, may I add, wise men have. In the process of transforming your run-of-the-mill brand into a sustainable brand, your run-of-the-mill business to a sustainable business there’s much to learn from this girl’s observation. There’s much to learn from looking at the world from a child’s curious and straightforward perspective. Begin with a question, a big, scary world-changing question that scares adults. Something juicy like: What difference does your company make for people or the planet? What is your relevance in a sustainable world?

New World – New Values
For the last two years, my team and I have compiled hundreds of sustainable communication case studies from all over the world. One of the key learnings from this knowledge bank was how few brands have truly embraced sustainability as an entrenched organisational value. We are currently in one of the biggest business transformations in history, except most businesses haven’t totally realised it yet. Just because consumers today aspire to drive Ferraris, does not mean our children won’t dream of owning a Tesla. Not all brands have adapted well to this change and consumers are expecting more responsibility and more sustainability from brands every day. How is your brand readying itself for the new sustainable market?

Why are we making carpets that harm the planet?
A question that kickstarted the journey of one of the most recognised sustainable brands: Interface. Its founder, Ray Anderson, wasn’t a born tree-hugger, but in his company a group of employees wanted to make a working group on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). He knew very little about CSR and decided to read a few books to prepare an inspiring talk for his team. This led him to a simple, game-changing question, “Why are we making carpets that harm the planet?” This vision has since propelled his business forward and into the top tier in its industry.

Polar bears


What does your brand own?
You need to question your business, your brand, your product offerings, your target audience and your stakeholders to find a place where you can make a difference. The entire sustainability agenda is complicated, but ideally your brand promise or communication shouldn’t be. Your brand must have a simple reason for being that’s bigger than itself. Bodyshop owns animal rights and Method owns green cleaning. The brand that owns sustainability in its category will be tomorrow’s winner. Consider the battles which have already begun for the green throne between the likes of Puma, Adidas and Nike or P&G, Nestlé and Unilever. It’s a battle that is also apparent in the much-debated campaigns from Pepsi and Coke, with Pepsi launching (and then pulling) The Refresh Project, which supported local communities and Coke working with the WWF to save one of their brand mascots, the polar bear. No longer are we seeing brands saying: Whatever you can do, I can do better. We are now seeing brands saying: Whatever you can do, I can do greener. If you want to stay relevant, you must own sustainability like Heinz owns ketchup.

Dear brand, meet your better half
Some brands have successfully integrated sustainability into the core of their brand like IBM’s Smarter Planet, which cleverly integrated IBM’s well-known ingenuity with sustainability. It should be a natural meeting between your brand and the world-bettering vision of your brand. The same applies to your campaign activities. The beer brand Corona; associated with sun, beach and fun launched a beach cleaning effort in Spain where the collected garbage was turned into a hotel. Celebrities were then invited to spend the night. This is a simple campaign, which fits the brand and activates an easy-going beach crowd in a fun way.

brand better half


What’s your big, scary, world-changing question?

Some companies are beginning to raise the bar by asking even bigger questions than that raised by Severn Cullis-Suzuki. “One single world working towards one single goal.” The likes of Paul Polman and Richard Branson are quite rightly questioning the role of publishing quarterly results, as they shift focus towards short-term profits, drowning out long-term results and superseding the need to think more sustainably. We must realise that a sustainable future is a long game, we must be patient – it is a fundamental structural change and it is going to be painful. If you lose the ability to question your business and its true purpose, you lose the ability to innovate and stay relevant. What, truly, is the point in asking yourself questions to which you already know the answer?

Ask big, scary, world-changing questions instead because quite honestly, they are not only timeous and necessary but they are fast becoming profitable too.

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