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Wednesday October 16 General

Brands must communicate their position on sustainability, or risk becoming irrelevant

By Ryan Wilkins, Founder & CEO, Raw London

Raw London CEO & founder Ryan Wilkins speaks to 6 leaders in the global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability space on why businesses need to be clearer and shout louder about where their morals lie.

A big takeaway from the dozens of presentations and debates I attended at Cannes Lions this year was that the most successful brands are those that are forward-looking and sustainable, and align their purpose with their business strategy. Crucially, these brands communicate their purpose creatively and coherently, demonstrating how it is delivered through CSR and sustainability initiatives in a way that aligns with the beliefs and world view of their consumers, fans, stakeholders and employees.

Why are they investing heavily in positioning themselves in this way? For the next generation of consumers (and an increasing percentage of us today), price is no longer a key determining purchase factor. In fact, quite the opposite is true; super-low prices are beginning to ring alarm bells with consumers who increasingly question which resource, individual or community has been abused in order to deliver the cut-price garment, plastic toy or beauty product in their hand.

As the climate emergency heightens and levels of trust in government diminishes, younger generations have largely realized that the responsibility for turning things around sits with them. In response, they’re looking toward their favorite brands and business leaders to step up.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Since the end of WW2, Western shopping culture has been driven by value and convenience - both have made us buy more and waste more. Until recently, consumers spent little time considering the moral disposition of the corporation producing their goods.

A lot changed in the latter decades of the twentieth century, as global news and the Internet gave rise to mainstream consumer activism. Boycotts took off against brands such as Shell, for example. It was a watershed moment - corporations that had previously been encouraged to maximize profits in the golden era of capitalism were promptly forced to take stock of their actions, to discover (or re-discover) their moral compass and consider people and the planet, as well as their shareholders.

In the years that have followed, the consumer voice has increased exponentially, fed continuously by environmental catastrophes, sweatshop scandals, animal testing and tax avoidance schemes. Many businesses have responded introspectively with risk management strategies, systems and processes that aim to safeguard them against reputational crises.

But box-ticking exercises and inauthentic hyperbole doesn’t cut it anymore. Corporations that aren’t taking purpose, CSR and sustainability seriously will get caught sleepwalking and become increasingly irrelevant and unappealing to the next generation of consumers, stakeholders and employees. For examples of brands that have used their purpose to galvanize corporate activism, see Patagonia vs. Trump administration and Lush vs. undercover policing in the UK. These campaigns drive directly to the hearts and minds of their followers and fans and show, not tell, how serious these brands are about doing the right thing.

CREATING TANGIBLE ACTION AND CHANGE

Having worked in the strategic communications space for over 13 years, I was interested in finding out if other businesses are proactively preparing themselves for the scrutiny they have, or will, come under. I contacted 6 leaders in global CSR and sustainability to find out about their ambitions, challenges and concerns.

At the highest level, all contributors said their CSR and sustainability work was now being given the top level of importance and priority within their organizations, and that this level had increased significantly during the past 5 years. More than half agreed that this is influenced by the power CSR can have in differentiating their brand in a crowded marketplace.

Despite this, most contributors said that although work had started, there was a distinct lack of cohesive strategy to connect and underpin piecemeal efforts across their businesses. Consequently, this was hindering their ability to engage employees, stakeholders and customers and, in turn, devaluing investments made in the area.

WHAT'S HOLDING BUSINESSES BACK?

A few common themes emerged:

BUDGET

The marketing budget allocated to CSR is not reflective of ambition and priority. The most established and proactive firm I spoke to is investing only 0.5% of the overall marketing budget in this area. They said, “our CSR strategy is well established which enables cohesive communication with colleagues and stakeholders, however, we’re missing an opportunity to build brand empathy with customers since our marketing teams are not fully engaged.”

LACK OF VISION

A lack of vision, understanding and communication from senior leaders within businesses is leading to a short-term view on how CSR and sustainability will add value to the business in the long run. As one CSR manager suggests; “There’s a huge lost opportunity here - the idea of spending on ‘purposeful’ messages for longer term, above-the-line brand building is just not recognized or valued at a high level. Especially in ever-tougher market conditions.”

DIVERSITY

Board-level diversity is still an issue in many businesses. One contributor believes this “adds to the disconnect between what is valued by a rich white man vs. the person on the street.”

PROFITS OVER PEOPLE

Public Limited Companies are owned by shareholders and report into the city each quarter making it harder for businesses to raise the priority of societal and environmental initiatives over profits - although, as one contributor adds, “investors do have a growing appreciation of the importance of building green and sustainable businesses and looking at the longer-term picture.”

LONG-TERM BENEFITS OF GOOD COMMUNICATION

In addition to the more obvious benefits of businesses doing good, a few contributors cited the positive influence on attracting new talent. One CSR manager said that as a result of communicating their work, they’re seeing an “incredible influx of talented and socially-conscious people approaching and joining the business. They all have sustainability front of mind and this means we can build an innovative business which is tuned into the challenges businesses we will face in the future. As such, our CSR work becomes a huge asset here.”

In summary, then, the businesses I spoke with have largely responded well to new pressures, and in one case have led their sector for some time. Encouragingly, the majority felt their work was authentic and aligned with business purpose and strategy, suggesting that CSR and sustainability was ingrained at a deeper level and not just greenwashing.

However, what’s holding back many firms from connecting their purpose to their products and services and empowering staff to clearly articulate their beliefs is the lack of investment in an effective brand and marketing strategy. At the same time, CSR, sustainability and marketing teams must become better aligned in order to promote a deeper understanding and harmonious balance between purpose, product and impact. Such an approach would inspire more compelling messaging and differentiate good companies from great ones.

It was great to be involved at Climate Week NYC this year and to speak on the panel for ‘Communicating Climate Change’ at The Hub, sharing insights about CSR and sustainability communications. We look forward to seeing climate action be taken to the forefront of businesses agendas, and hearing about progress made at next year’s Climate Week NYC.

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