Here's how to use your company's most powerful tool to change the world

A still from P&G's "Love Over Bias" commercial
P&G
A still from P&G's "Love Over Bias" commercial around the 2018 Winter Olympics.

This article is the third in a series by BSR that will explore how corporate sustainability pros can work across departments on shared goals.

Business leaders possess a singularly powerful tool to build the world we all want to live in: their corporate brands. It is well documented that brands capture consumers' hearts and minds in an incredibly powerful way. A recent example of this? P&G's ad for the 2018 Winter Olympics, which emphasizes the power of love to triumph over bias.

Brands can inspire people to be more tolerant of other cultures, to empower women or to conserve resources. Not only can brands make a positive difference, but when they seriously engage with issues such as inclusion and diversity, greenhouse gas emissions, raw materials or labor rights, they can build winning brand strategies. In many ways, the synergy between the objectives and priorities of the sustainability and marketing teams couldn't be more obvious and potentially powerful.

One of the most talked-about demonstrations of this in practice is Unilever's "sustainable living" brands, which are growing more than 50 percent faster than the rest of the business and in 2016, accounted for 60 percent of growth (both figures have accelerated from 2015.) These brands — including Ben & Jerry's, Dove and Knorr — have put social and environmental responsibility at the very core of their brand strategies, shaping not only brand communications but also community engagement, product innovation and the supply chain. Additional examples of companies embracing this abound, from small companies such as Everlane to more established players such as Nike.

This is part of a much wider megatrend impacting many sectors, whereby consumers are looking to brands — and the companies behind them — to play a role in driving societal change. This is most obvious in the American context, where brands are increasingly asked to take a position on the big social and political questions of the day, but it is a rising trend globally, too.

According to Cone Communications surveys, "Brands must share not only what they stand for, but what they stand up for." In a global survey conducted by Edelman, 57 percent of consumers in 14 countries are buying or boycotting brands based on their position on an issue.

In other words, the discipline of sustainability can be the brand manager's best friend. An understanding of social, environmental and economic impacts can precisely identify the big issues that a brand can credibly address and that are relevant to the organization's strategy, purpose and stakeholders. This understanding also can drive insights and creative thinking.

Yet many businesses are missing these opportunities. Sometimes, the brands in their portfolio haven't fully embraced the corporate-level sustainability strategy, or brand owners haven't thought through how improved sustainability practices can drive brand desirability, business growth and innovation. It's as though sustainability is still seen as something niche and separate, in spite of evidence that customers are demanding it.

Integrating sustainability into brand strategy requires a new approach for teams that may not have worked closely together before. This collaboration to deliver a purpose-led brand requires the following two steps.

The first step is for the brand owners and their creative agencies to gather and refine consumer and cultural insights related to the organization's sustainability commitments. They then use these insights to create a toolkit whose aim is to help brand managers make the leap from what is often an abstract sustainability strategy to consumer-led brand strategies. For example, a brand in a declining fragrance market might find ways to engage women who are concerned about allergens and perfumes when pregnant. A laundry brand, aware of increasingly frequent water crises, could formulate a low-rinse formulation that creates a consumer benefit in the form of water savings, increases "brand love," protects its market and helps alleviate a serious and deepening environmental problem.

In developing this toolkit, it is critical to get inspiration from other brands — both in and out of category — that have embedded sustainability commitments into their core brand strategies or as long-running campaigns. "Steal with pride" uses existing internal brand key or innovation models to help translate the organization's sustainability commitments to the brand level.

The next step is to collaborate with the brands to figure out how they can deliver on the company's sustainability commitments and, more important, how they can leverage sustainability to build brand equity. By examining the toolkit, the specific brand key, consumer insights and the product innovation pipeline, the brand can identify positioning territories, product innovation ideas and campaign-able areas to drive growth. The process allows brands to build a marketing roadmap to implement in-house or alongside their marketing agencies.

Because the process can be challenging, we want to share six lessons we've learned from working with multi-brand clients in the luxury, beauty and personal care, food and retail sectors.

  1. The process is part art and part science. It combines rigorous process, technical knowledge, consumer insight and creative thinking. The answers won't be immediately obvious, so this requires genuine collaboration between the sustainability team and marketers.
  2. Take a robust approach to filtering corporate sustainability commitments, and only focus on those that are relevant and authentic to the brand and its consumers.
  3. Look at the sustainability commitments through the lens of consumers: What matters to them and their families in their daily lives?
  4. The sustainability team should involve brands at the earliest opportunity. A purely top-down approach takes too long, and marketers move very quickly once brand-building value is understood.
  5. Involve R&D early in the process, as the team's input, especially on sustainable product innovation, will be invaluable.
  6. Ask yourself whether the revised brand positioning passes the sniff test: Does it feel authentic? If not, reassess.

As business leaders try to make sense of the rapidly changing world around them, one of the most powerful ways you can boost the top line and fulfill your duties as corporate citizens is to collaborate more meaningfully on the products and marketing campaigns you will bring to life.