Do you have a sustainable brand?

Do you have a sustainable brand?

Tree graph image by weerapat kiatdumrong via Shutterstock.

Do consumers care about sustainability or the sustainable attributes of products and services? Would you book a greener hotel if the prices were comparative? Did you start paying more attention to labels after the Rana Plaza fire?

When discussions turn to issues such as purpose, risk and connecting consumers with sustainability, Henk Campher becomes fidgety. The senior vice president for business and social purpose with Edelman has been at this for a while. Between working with brands such as Starbucks, Levi's, Best Buy, Abbott Labs and REI, and leading the Oxfam International Coffee Campaign, Campher has built a reputation for challenging the status quo while operating within the trenches of corporate corridors.

Recently, he wrote a DoShorts book titled "Creating a Sustainable Brand: A Guide to Growing the Sustainability Top Line," and put some of his strategies and ideas on paper. Aman Singh, CSRwire editorial director, sat down for a conversation on the ideas he presents in the book, why he believes consumers have bought into sustainability and where he sees the PR industry headed. [Full disclosure: Singh was a reviewer of the book].

Aman Singh: You write that the problem is not that consumers don't want to purchase sustainable products, it's that brands are unable to bring sustainability to life for consumers. Tips?

Henk Campher: The most common mistake companies make is to lean too far to either the sustainability of the product or focus too much on how it comes to life for the consumer. The sustainability of a product is only one part of the story — the what part of a sustainable brand. To bring it to life for the consumer, you have to balance this with how this relates to them.

It is a delicate balance but extremely important. Think of the what part as showing the consumer the arms, legs, etc. of the product. It only tells them what it is but it doesn't create a connection. To bring it to life we should show the personality and all the quirkiness of the brand — the how — to help them connect and care about the product.

Sustainable branding is very much like dating — you don't go on a date because the other person breathes and resembles a human being. You go beyond that to try and make a connection with how that person relates to you and how you can build a relationship.

The same for a product — you need to become a sustainable brand or else you will remain a cheap date and/or brief fling. The model described in the book is meant to be a guide on how to build this long-term relationship and an insider's guide on how to keep the relationship fresh.

Singh: Materiality matrices don't matter to consumers but they're proving important in helping companies focus. How can they use these to also engage their consumers?

Campher: Start balancing your materiality assessments a bit more. Too often the voices of stakeholders heard in materiality assessments are the loudest and not necessarily the most important voices. Activists, NGOs and sustainability influencers are the ones measured and engaged to inform the materiality assessment. But consumer and customer voices are almost completely absent.

Yet, they remain the most important stakeholder — they bring in the money and add to your business top line! Bringing in their voices will help you determine what areas are truly most material to your company and your most important stakeholders. It will tell you where your major threats and opportunities are as it relates to consumers.

Of course, materiality assessments suffer from only focusing on the impact of the product on the supply chain — that's only part of the story.

As I argue in the book, you can create the most sustainable cigarette but it is still a cigarette. You have to give equal weight to the impact of the product itself. This will help you determine the weaknesses in how something is made as well as the actual impact of the product itself and help you dodge the dreaded claim of greenwashing.

But how sustainable the product itself is only tells one side of the story.

It tells what we should focus on when we engage the consumer but not how we should engage them. The next step will vary from brand to brand — determining how sustainability comes to life in the brand. What is the unique value proposition of sustainability in the brand? How deeply is sustainability embedded in the brand identity? How does it show itself to the consumer? Is it disruptive in engaging the consumer or more reserved?

That's the model I develop in the book — merging the what and how to create a sustainable brand that resonates with the consumer.

Singh: Getting used to failure is tough — you offer a healthy dose of how the best of brands have gone through it. Some tips for our risk-averse private sector?

Campher: Failure isn't tough — it is part of being in business. Companies who say they are risk averse are doomed to fail.

It was a risk to create the first iPod. It was a risk to create Tesla. It was a risk to create TOMS. It was a risk to take Dove to where it is today. Sustainability folks are risk averse because they are selling sustainability instead of selling a business opportunity.

We need groups to understand how sustainability can add to the simple question people ask when they buy a product or service — why should I give a damn?

Singh: You've worked with numerous companies on brand development over the last two decades. What has shifted?

Campher: Firstly, social media and the connected world have redefined how brands interact with consumers. Twenty years ago, companies owned brands and sold that to the consumer. Today, they are merely custodians of the brand and consumers own it. The more agile businesses realize that the easier it will be for them to be trusted as the custodians of the brand, the more consumers will give them their loyalty.

Secondly, price and quality have become increasingly meaningless parts of a brand. Companies know that it is almost impossible to compete on price and have brand value. They would love to think that there is a huge quality difference between them and their major competitors but there isn't. For instance, the difference between most cars in the same category is almost meaningless. So how do consumers make their choices? According to the value proposition offered by the brand.

Finally, the ways in which brand value proposition comes to life for the consumer has shifted. The days of the big advertising campaign is gone. Today they want you to not only be part of their lives but also do things that are unexpected and disruptive. Consumers are flooded with information and visual stimuli each day. How you break through all of that clutter is key. You have to build it into your brand identity and value proposition — so it is as much strategic as tactical.

Singh: You work at the unique cusp between classic public relations and responsible brand development. Where do you see the PR sector headed in the next 20 years?

Campher: Sustainability will be like digital skills. It will be part of every single part of the PR sector. It won't be a separate practice anymore but we are still a very long way from achieving that. Too many PR hacks think they can just make it up as they go. They will get burnt so many times until they move on and the industry really starts to up-skill all of their people.

Remember, agencies are as vulnerable as any of their clients. The hyper-transparent world means that any consumer and activist can look at what agency is behind the greenwashing. No one expects perfection but they better start waking up before they are hit by their own BP-style disaster.

My biggest fear is that PR agencies don't realize that their people are highly underskilled to handle the shifting world and impact of creating a sustainable brand. The industry will be caught out if they don't start relooking at what they do and whether their people are geared towards the changing world.

And, of course, for them to be a sustainable PR brand, they will need to start asking what the impact of their service is. The model created in this book goes beyond products — it covers services, software, social media and everything else in between.

A main question remains — do you have a sustainable brand?

The answer for the PR sector is the same as with most other sectors — simply, no. But follow the model and you can start creating your sustainable brand.

Tree graph image by weerapat kiatdumrong via Shutterstock.