sustainability: what’s a brand got to do with it?

There’s been a really provocative and passionate debate going on over at the Environmental Leader website about sustainability. It’s challenged me to think about brands, social capital, and sustainability in new ways and so I wanted to share some of my insights with you.

It all started with a post by Guy Champniss, an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a brand strategy agency focused on sustainability and prosocial consumer behavior. He’s also co-author of the new book “Brand Valued: How Socially Valued Brands Hold the Key to a Sustainable Future and Business Success,” on which the post is based.

The title of the post, “Progressive Brands Should Turn Their Backs on Sustainability,” certainly was an attention-getter. But in truth, the point Guy makes doesn’t seem that radical.

Essentially Guy believes, “Brands have taken a wrong turn: that rather than remaining slavishly devoted to reporting sustainability, brands have a far more important – a far more exciting – role to play in helping us all move towards becoming more sustainable in our lifestyles.

He goes onto explain that brands are made to build social capital (defined as “the stocks of dialogue, shared thinking and trust that swirls around us, whether it’s in our families, at work, in the community, or across the country.”) And as such, “brands have the opportunity to both nudge their corporate guardians closer to a long-term and durable competitive advantage, and us all towards more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles.

This POV contrasts with the traditional view of sustainability that says, “We just need to awaken the ‘inner social and environmental values’ in everyone’” and people will start to demand sustainable products.

Guy argues that “Behavior change is complex and often relies on less normative tactics.” Therefore brands can get people to act more sustainably because they can “engage consumers on the salient issues.” He advocates building a sustainable demand chain with brands instead of using them only to report on a sustainable supply chain.

He points to Toyota’s Ideas for Good campaign as an example. “Rather than using the brand to ‘report’ sustainability, they used the brand to convene interest in using Toyota’s technology to find solutions to the problems that those who engaged with the initiative thought worthwhile. The campaign created social capital around sustainability issues, because it initiated a dialogue, it presented a platform for others to then reflect and contribute, and then sought to garner more trust by acting on those ideas to the best of its abilities.

Perhaps the best way to convey Guy’s thesis is the note from one of the commenters, Matt M. He wrote, “This article is calling on companies to use their brands to assist the consumer in ‘walking the walk’ instead of just using the brand to ‘talk the talk.”

However, several commenters took issue with the piece. For example:

Gregory G. Stine, President/CEO, of SustainEdge, a consultancy, questioned whether social capital should be emphasized over “the ‘other’ capitals that make up ‘complete’ or ‘broad’ sustainability – natural, manufactured, human and financial.” Guy responded, “Social capital trumps all…because social capital levels determine perception, and…if a brand creates a lot of social capital, then the process should result in a reputation that is accurate.

Adam Cooper asked, “Why differentiate between sustainability and social capital? They are undoubted linked, and can be considered drivers of each other.” Guy explained that he was “drawing a distinction between what a company does as a legal, physical entity, and what a brand does – or could do.

In a separate response to Shannon C., Guy dissects this point further, saying businesses and brands “are very different, and more importantly the two things have very different, diverging, roles in sustainability. Yes, they are interdependent, and arguably complementary, but they are not the same…Brands need to be a powerful weapon for business not signaling what they have done, but rather what customers and consumers can do.

As you can see, it was a lively exchange and I encourage you to read through it all – the post is long and the comment thread even more so, but I came away from reading them with an enlightened perspective on sustainability.

Moreover, I also took away some valuable insights about the value of brands in general.  Most importantly, “Brands represent the most efficient, ingenious and indefatigable engines of social capital we have at our disposaland the business advantages of social capital include “faster and more frequent dialogue, greater innovation, access to tacit knowledge, trust, loyalty, agility – the list goes on.

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