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How Companies Both Large and Small Can Make an Impact

September 30, 2019

By Daniel Cherrin

“Building sustainability into the core of our purpose as a company impacts our operations, our customers, our suppliers and our communities—and it also impacts our employees. When you work for 3M, you are changing the world. That’s what we do—we use science to help solve global challenges and to improve every life.”

—Dr. Gayle Schueller, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, 3M

There is a strong case for businesses to create sustainable brands. More companies are managing sustainability to improve processes, pursue growth and add value to their companies. In addition, S&P 500 companies that build sustainability into their core strategies are outperforming those that are not.

As we know, small and medium sized-businesses are just as crucial to the health and stability of the global economy as big business. Small businesses that integrate sustainability into their business strategy can benefit from reduced risk, lower costs and new opportunities.

Today there are plenty of opportunities and challenges for brands seeking relevance and engagement from stakeholders beyond a pure transaction. In fact, there are several companies working to influence consumer behavior towards changing their lifestyle to live a life of purpose.

For example, earlier this year Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Danone, Mars Petcare, Mondelēz International and others, launched a partnership to develop packaging that would limit waste. They’re working together on a project known as “Loop” and offering consumers an alternative to recycling.

Those are big and global brands, but there is no reason why small business leaders should not be leading the way too. It starts by identifying the business and personal value in creating a sustainable agenda and then working to change their corporate structure to maximize both impact and profit.

Advancing social issues can put some companies at risk. As a result, it is vital you know your customers. For others it can unlock new business opportunities, scale their storytelling and ultimately improve their bottom line. From Tesla’s commitment to enabling sustainable mass transportation to Everlane’s origin story of radical transparency in an infamously opaque industry, brands are taking a risk and taking a stand.

Through small changes to their business models, unlikely collaborations or major disruptions in their industries, businesses, both big and small, are not only meeting global challenges such as climate change, the fight against hunger and poverty or inequality, but they are actively encouraging systemic changes in order to address the challenges in an increasingly uncertain environment.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, are the world’s shared plan to end extreme poverty, reduce inequalities and protect the planet by 2030. Adopted by 193 countries in 2015, the SDGs have inspired people from across sectors, geographies and cultures.

Brands are becoming brave and bold. Emmanuel Feber, CEO of Danone, recently urged brands at SB’19 Paris (Sustainable Brands) to “establish a bold purpose and act consciously to meet it, or else they will lose all meaning as a company and disappear.”

Companies such as Danone, Kellogg, Proctor & Gamble, Ben & Jerry’s, REI and DTE are actively influencing and encouraging responsible consumption by their customer. In fact, business leaders are no longer afraid to drive disruptive changes to enhance sustainable innovation or meet one of the 17 United Nations SDGs.

Why does this matter? First, brands are taking stands and working to solve real world problems through the products they create far quicker than any government can act on it. Second, the sustainability message from companies is important to the consumer and a vital part of any company’s marketing strategy.

A new study from DoSomething Strategic, found that 66 percent of young consumers say that a brand’s association with a social cause or platform positively impacts their overall impression of the brand, and 58 percent say this association will impact their likelihood of purchasing that brand.

If your company is making an impact, even if it is having a can drive or building houses, tell others about it. It is a missed opportunity to build a relationship with your consumer, based on shared values, if you are not communicating what your company is doing.

You can learn from Nike (whether you agree with them or not). They earned significant media attention in 2018 with its
Colin Kaepernick campaign that showed support for his protest movement against racism and social injustice. Online mentions and comments about Nike rose 1,678 percent immediately following the launch of that campaign (according to data from 4C Insights), and mentions of Kaepernick spiked 362,280 percent.

Since 2004, Dove focused their campaign on its commitment to raise self-esteem and drive body confidence. Fifty-three percent of respondents (in the DoSomething survey) associate Dove with body positivity — among the highest associations with a single cause found in the survey.

Simon Mainwaring, Founder and CEO of We First and author of the book by the same name, recently spoke at SB’19 Detroit, on Purpose-Driven Innovation and provided a 6-Step Movement Making Framework to help company’s like yours share your brand’s sustainability story:

Define your purpose. Understand the reason why your brand exists. What is its purpose and what problems does it solve? This purpose will define the campaign you develop internally and the story you share with your customers.

Articulate your goals. In building a movement, it is important for your customers to be part of the journey. They will know about it only if you tell them about it.

Equip and mobilize employees next to your customer. Your employees are your best brand champion and chief storytellers. Involve them in every aspect of championing your brand with purpose and encourage them to explore new ways your company
can make can impact.

Engage your external community. Look for unlikely collaborations outside of your company to help achieve a common purpose. In 2015, Ben & Jerry’s introduced Save our Swirled, a new flavor featuring raspberry ice cream, marshmallow and raspberry swirls, plus dark and white fudge ice cream cones, to draw attention to climate change. Tesla Motors joined Ben & Jerry’s for the official launch of the new flavor and launched their own Save Our Swirled tour, featuring their Tesla S, aimed at bringing climate action — and free ice cream!

Lead the conversation. Your employees and customers will appreciate how your company is part of a larger movement. They will respect you wanting to earn a profit, but they will appreciate you more if you are activating and investing in impact-driven initiatives and taking the lead.

Measure internal and external impact. In business, it is all about impact and making a difference. So set benchmarks, targets and milestones to help you understand the impact you are making on your company, society and the environment and to ensure everyone is aligned around the same purpose. This includes:

  • Business targets (share performance, market expansion)
  • Brand targets (consumer acquisition, brand reputation)
  • Internal targets (talent attraction, employee retention)
  • Impact targets (ESG–environmental, social and governance– indicators, innovation impacts)

There is a robust case for creating a sustainable brand and shifting your business strategy to embed purpose into your company. “Consumers are no longer willing to compromise performance for living sustainably and they expect brands to take meaningful action in solving some of the most complex challenges facing the world,” Marc Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, told an audience at SB’19 Paris. “This is why P&G is focused on reinventing marketing to use the reach and voice of our brands as a force for good and a force for growth. We want our brands to be growing and creating value while having a measurable, long-term, positive impact on society and the environment.”

Making an impact, solving problems, both big and small, and sharing your brand’s story is not something reserved for the world’s largest companies. It is something we should all be doing.

Daniel Cherrin is founder and Chief Strategic Communications Officer of North Coast Strategies, a public relations consultancy based in Detroit. His practice centers around strategic communications, corporate sustainability and crisis management.

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