Brand competition in the Sustainability Era
You might have heard a rumor that the weekend was invented by Ford, in order to spur economic growth in and around is factories. And that would be partially true. Ford did institute a policy of 2-day weekends on his factories, but he didn’t invent the idea. Two-day weekends (as opposed to 1-day or 1 every other week, or just plain nothing at all) were a union labor concept designed to accommodate both the Jewish and Christian Sabbaths for workers in New England. The weekend movement was already underway, but Ford helped bring it to scale. Social movements are inherently important to businesses, because they indicate what is truly important to people, and impact what they buy, when, from whom.
So how do brands harness social movements? The brand must strike a chord, woo the primal consciousness in some way. To imbue meaning in their brands, marketers employ cultural icons and archetypes—literally, those characters like the jester, hero, the magician, or the oracle that appear and reappear morphed by mythologies throughout humanity. But these concepts serve no purpose except as a mask unless the “spirit” of the business demonstrates true integrity through better business models, not just better products, as Meredith Beam of BEAM, Inc. an innovation firm, proposes.
The “spirit” of the brand can be revealed through compelling stories, or better yet, a heroic protagonist. Seventh Generations co-founder Jeffrey Hollander, who writes a blog called “The Inspired Protagonist,” has embraced his company’s archetypal role as a sort of David to Goliath, or in this case an Inspired Protagonist versus Brawny.
One of his latest articles calls out the unsavory political dealings of the owners of Brawny’s parent company, the Koch brothers. A New Yorker Mag article detailed Tea-party related political lobbying by these pro-oil, global warming-disbelievers. Their conservative political jockeying aside, it appears there’s very little impetus for Koch’s Brawny to become truly sustainable.
The situation reveals a shift in branding that’s been unfolding, albeit as slow as the slow food movement, into something as community-centric. The brand is based not just on the product, but also the community—the conversation among friends, family, like-minds. It’s about building trust through transparency. And for sustainable brands, it’s about striving to indeed make the world wonderful for everyone and everything thing in nature. In a talk at the Net Impact Conference, held at Ross Business School October 30, Beam conjured up images of wholesomeness when she referred to “Naringsliv,” a Swedish word she suggested means nourishment for life.
It’s a battle of who can do the most good, not just the least bad.
In order to achieve this, Beam says sustainable businesses need to go beyond thinking competitive advantage to “Networks of Advantage”. She sees a need for brands to be nimble, developing relationships and exchange of information that embraces “Leap” thinking. She sites examples like P&G and Google swapping marketing teams as practice in network advantage. Cross-pollination of ideas and capabilities can result in “disruptive innovation,” i.e. game changing policies and technology. This coalition-building among sustainable businesses and knowledge leaders is helping companies like Seventh Generation develop more sustainable products much faster than their competitors.
Seventh Generation grows up with Walmart
In this economy, consumers make choices with well-meaning hearts and short dollars. Sustainable brands nurture relatively small communities of customers, and sometimes struggle to find ways of reaching bigger markets. So, even mavericks make compromises, as did Ben & Jerry’s in their sale to Unilever in 2000. Similarly, Seventh Generation, too, has found a new partner in a controversial outfit—WalMart.
Luckily for 7G, most consumers in their core market think this move is just fine, according to Raphael Bemporad, chief strategist for BBMG, agency of record for Seventh Generation. Among those interested in sustainable products, but who are sometimes “swing purchasers” depending on price and availability, 54% surveyed felt positive about the move to Walmart, while 33% were undecided. Some felt this partnership would give the brand and its message a great platform to grow. Through distribution at Walmart, the brand will indeed reach and perhaps educate more consumers about sustainable product alternatives.
(CORRECTION: BBMG is not the agency of record for Seventh Generation, but is partnering with the brand on the consumer research, pertaining to consumer co-creativity and innovation.)
Yet, in its success, Seventh Generation is inviting an onslaught of copy-cats and green-washing from its competitors. Other household cleaning brands might finally perk up, and become more resourceful in their sustainability efforts. The rush to look responsible has already begun to cause clutter and mass confusion as to what brand has the most integrity, anyway. So Seventh Generation will have to stand out not only as a brand, but as a leader in a movement.
Hollander believes in the power of social movements, and not just the pretty armchair kind. In a video on the company website, Hollander mentions as an eye-opening event, Brazilian officials and climate activists’ success in shutting down a Cargill operating port for noncompliance with environmental reporting in 2007. Unfortunately, it will take more than a port closing to combat forest-stripping, mass producers like Cargill, which evidently continues operations at the Satarem port in Para, Brazil.
It will take a revolution. Seventh Generation has literally been “in-the-trenches” with the ecological movement, achieving positive impact through sourcing, production-line innovation, and visibility. And they’re talking about their challenges as well as successes, demonstrating their transparency with an easy-to-follow, surprisingly in-depth, responsibility report that aims to set radical, new industry reporting standards.
Through scrutiny of their supply chain and lessons from awareness groups, Seventh Generation realized that the brand’s integrity hinged, in part, on ensuring that its use of palm kernel oil was truly sustainable. They weighed the consequences of production on rainforest demolition, CO2 absorption, and strain on struggling communities. The responsibility report announced, “In an industry-leading initiative, Seventh Generation committed to sourcing 100% of our needs from sustainable palm oil by 2012.” Of course, Hollander himself has become a major proponent of sustainable palm oil.
Welcome to the revolution. At least, that’s how Hollander sees it. Referring to his most recent book, The Responsibility Revolution, Hollander says, “This really is about inspiring companies with the most wonderful possibilities that other companies have created; to show companies the business case for why this makes sense to do… and show them how to do it right.”
The right way in sustainable businesses is increasingly about integrating sustainability throughout the organization, and finally to externalize. Beam used the term “Regeneration”, giving back, nurturing, and reclaiming what we’ve lost in the balance of nature and human development, to describe the next phase of innovation for companies that succeed, overall. That is indeed what AT Kearney reported in its survey of sustainable businesses, found to be operating at about 15% better performance rates than their non-sustainable competitors during the recession.
Revolution will always begin with people, and businesses will find ways to reinforce today’s sustainability movements or hinder them. Thankfully, marketers can be revolutionaries, too.
This article was written just prior to the news circulating of Hollender’s separation from the company. Was Jeffrey Hollender too revolutionary? What could have caused the Board of Directors to oust Jeffrey Hollender from his executive chairmanship for Seventh Generation, the household cleaning products company he co-founded? It is possible that, like Al Gore, Hollender may have another professional calling. Let us hope the company continues to embrace the spirit of the brand described herein, and follow-through on its bold pledges.
For more on the circumstances, and statements from the top folks at Seventh Generation, check it out here.