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How parent companies can raise their 'brand children'

I have been thinking about the impacts on culture to a brand and its parent when a parent acquires a new brand, particularly a brand known for being green. Think Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever, Honest Tea to Coca-Cola, Burt’s Bees to Clorox or Plum Organics to Campbell’s.

In those first transition years post-acquisition, there are significant challenges for company leaders to balance the maintenance of a unified culture with the expression of brands’ individual identities. 

Letitia Webster discussed this topic in a presentation at the Sustainable Brands’ San Diego conference in June. As the global director of corporate sustainability at VF Corporation — a company spanning 30 brands and 60,000 employees — Webster is an expert on navigating company culture to drive sustainable growth. 

“Fundamentally at its core, sustainability is about change,” she said. “About 50 to 60 percent of my work is really about change management.” Webster described VF’s approach as unifying and scaling its sustainability strategy across its multi-brand portfolio, while also embracing single-brand efforts. 


There are analogous events where we could draw assumptions. The process of acquiring a new brand is somewhat similar to the integration of any smaller group into a larger entity — such as a family adopting a child, a group accepting a new member or a country absorbing a new immigrant population. 

In all these examples, the larger unit arrives to the acquisition with notably more power, but both the acquirer and the acquired are better off when the acquired is empowered to retain defining characteristics.   

This certainly holds true for Ben & Jerry’s, Plum Organics and Honest Tea.

Ben & Jerry’s and Plum Organics

Can you recall when we all stood by with bated breath when Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s 15 years ago? This was well before Paul Polman was at its pulpit and Unilever was the darling in sustainability circles.

Fifteen years later,  Ben & Jerry’s consistently has advocated on behalf of social causes; its long-time support for marriage equality and its recently launched climate-change awareness ice cream flavor, “Save Our Swirled,” are just two examples.

Another example: As a Certified B Corporation, Plum Organics, a Campbell’s brand, is beholden to its environmental and social standards as much as its financial obligations. Nikki King, senior manager of CSR at Campbell’s, believes allowing individual brands to maintain their sustainability ethos has benefited the company as a whole.

“We love the Plum brand. … It reached a whole new group of consumers,” she told a panel at the Sustainable Brands conference.

But these examples are the progressive children of parents leading very, very large families. Webster emphasized that companies also must articulate and extend their own culture to advance sustainability — across all brands.

Ben & Jerry's Save Our Swirled ice cream flavor

So how can a parent company strike a balance of imposing its sustainability agenda, both empowering individual brands and also sharing knowledge among them?

Leaders would be wise to take Webster’s three-pronged advice: 

1. Align culture to advance sustainability across brands

Despite each brand’s unique culture and unique products, part of Webster’s job is to find commonalities across VF’s brands that can be leveraged to create change.

“In a company that’s been around for 115 years, implementing sustainability requires deeply understanding the culture, the mental models and the capabilities of the organization,” said Webster. “We believe that the culture that exists at each brand is actually one of the most fundamental pieces to the success of those brands.”

2. Support governing structures to ensure alignment

When Webster joined VF, she helped form a Sustainability & Responsibility Council of cross-brand, cross-functional leaders to create a shared vision. The council developed guiding principles for the company’s sustainability agenda, and now uses those principles to engage with leaders across the company and co-create sustainability programs.

The company also created an interdisciplinary Senior Leadership Team including Webster and the company’s chief finance officer, as well as VPs of human resources, investor relations and public affairs. Together the team promotes sustainability alignment and integration within the company. 

3. Encourage employee collaboration

To rally employees around a common goal and bolster its sustainability achievement, VF built an online collaboration portal accessible by employees around the globe and across brands. Webster spoke previously to GreenBiz about the online portal

The child changes the parent, too

We’ve come to trust the acquisition of the sustainable brands by the mainstream parents.  What I have come to realize is how that new sustainable child can affect the parents’ sustainability commitments. 

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