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Are brands doing enough for the planet?

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The creative industry can help brands contribute to the greater good, in ways that feel genuine and authentic.

It’s clear that consumers are becoming more attuned to brands acting in socially and environmentally beneficial ways and they show this by voting with their wallets.

Creative companies can help the planet

Marketing professionals have the opportunity to contextualise customer sentiment within brand and campaign in response to big macro trends; such as more plant-based foods, reducing plastics and valuing provenance. There is the ability to examine the trade-offs at play within customer attitudes and behaviours and help influence both brands and customers to more progressive outcomes. This is the great leverage that agencies can have at scale through the brands they support.

Agencies influencing brand activity

Agencies are well placed to deliver sustainable driven change through the combination of applying analysis, creativity and psychology to inform their work every day.

If we can build a business case for doing ‘the right thing’ that also makes good business sense in the client’s language, through driving coverage, brand consideration, trial or ROI for example, then we’re heading in the right direction.

From working with our clients, we find that this is often a journey where we build client confidence up to create levels of change and impact. This often starts with sustainability reporting as a mechanism for helping stakeholders internally.

What are the obstacles?

There are a number of barriers to overcome when trying to move towards being more sustainable as a brand. It can be regarded as a peripheral activity, or brands can struggle to know how to put their best foot forward without worrying about the possible critique and speculation that could follow as a result.

There is also the need to get buy-in across stakeholders, but there’s often difficulty in producing a business case when moving beyond simple cost-saving initiatives, for example water or waste reduction. This is because when seeking to differentiate based on purpose or innovations, with a sustainable appeal to today’s employee and customer trends, it can be hard to quantify the potential gain. However, the capex, wider resource requirement or per unit cost, is often tangible enough to get a new formula of product, type of packaging, process or operation off the ground.

A few pence per unit difference at the scale of a large global corporate can make all the difference in profitability. Yet, as we increasingly hear, there is always a ‘cost’ to our actions, and if this is not reflected in the price to the consumer, it will hit the environment or communities at another point down the line. This is why many companies drive responsibility throughout their supply chains, to establish positive sourcing practices and establish a fair price and methods for mitigating and offsetting impact.

Insight and testing can be invaluable here, ultimately building the case for senior management to grow these sorts of efforts at scale.

A more purpose driven approach

This is essentially about establishing the ‘why’ of a brand and prioritising and aligning efforts around it, for increased clarity and effect. Often, by doing this you elevate the whole to something more meaningful and motivating. Sustainability and CSR can also often play a central part, rather than being a ‘bolt-on’. An example is Mars Petcare, ‘Making a better world for Pets’. Positioning the ways of establishing the ‘why’ behind purpose can be a lot broader than the initial product offering, the opportunities from such an approach can be significant in terms of brand, relationships, research, innovation.

Is changing the business model really the answer?

For the environment, as well as populations of the world lacking equality, change can’t come fast enough. However, for any given business it really is on a case-by- case basis. Start-ups and challenger brands creating their own point of differentiation through sustainability or CSR is well documented.

Yet experience says that for a large corporate company they can latch onto the killer idea or require a more ‘softly softly’ incremental approach, dependent on their context, their current management and the category in question – when this takes off, it often drives the scale to create ‘tipping points’ in awareness and adoption.

Do we need to look at other variables to judge businesses?  

A balanced scorecard of business metrics should have such indicators if a business is to have truly sustainable opportunity and profits. For example, many organisations now include metrics such as measures of Social Return on Investment (SROI).

If there is potential harmful exposure to the audience, environment or supply chain on which the business depends, because of activity conducted in the course of business, then mitigating this is fundamental to preserving a long term future.

Be authentic when brands want to do good

Being authentic when brands are claiming to help the environment is paramount. People can sniff out disingenuous brands from a mile off and apply the ‘greenwash’ label. Authentic brands in this area are often typified by a passionate leader who has spearheaded change, or they have been founded on such principles and the brand exudes them at every touchpoint.

Many brands understand the cost saving implications of operational efficiencies but are often not brave enough to see the potential for differentiation that a Tom’s Shoes, Ben and Jerry’s or Patagonia deliver, through the brand principles being more central to their reason for being. 

Bright future or impending doom?

Increasing legislation will mandate organisations to continue grappling with and raising the importance of these topics. Over the last decade we’ve seen that consumer and business awareness has shifted dramatically in terms of knowledge. However, it’s all still a long way off where we need to be and many argue we were at the point of doing irreversible change to the planet around 30 years ago, so really, raising the game on this cannot come fast enough.

It might not be fast enough for the planet, but at Clarity we’re starting to see more clients take a longer-term view, where a more purpose-driven approach includes sustainability. This gives us a sense of optimism, and an appetite to help keep driving this momentum.

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Leigh Tymms is strategy & planning director at Clarity.

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