Can sustainability sustain your brand?

purple keySustainability is becoming an imperative rather than an add-on for companies and brands. Nielsen research shows that brands with societal commitment grew faster than those without. In 2015, 50% of Unilever’s growth came from its “sustainable living” brands. In June 2016, I had the honor of presenting on sustainability contributing to marketing and brand value at the Wharton Global Forum. Professor David Reibstein chaired the session. Together, we highlighted the following keys for success.


Start with why

golden circleSimon (Sinek) says to always start with why – and the same is true for integrating sustainability into marketing. Start from the why of your brand. People don’t buy what you sell, they buy why you do it. What’s your brand’s purpose? What is the reason it really exists? What problem does it solve? What assets does your brand have to tackle that problem at a higher, societal level? Make that your starting point for integrating sustainability into marketing.


User relevance

tony featuredWhether you’re solving an issue for your brand users or for people elsewhere, make that issue relevant to your users. In order to successfully integrate sustainability into your brand, your consumers must care. However, they can only do so if they are aware. My favorite chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely therefore first makes consumers aware about slave labor on the cocoa farms in West Africa. It then offers great tasting, slavery-free chocolate. The result? Happier cocoa farmers in their supply chain, engaged consumers and year-on-year double-digit growth for the brand.


Shared value creation

airhuntersIt all starts from shared value creation. Using the core assets and capabilities of your brand to create value for your brand, your users and society. This is relevant for both B2C and B2B brands. One of my favorite B2B examples is Airhunters, a Dutch company matching empty space on trucks with smaller loads. As a result of its matches, it’s reducing emissions and congestion on the road, increasing revenues for the transportation companies and reducing costs for the company that wants to move something from A to B. And there’s plenty of shared value created to generate a healthy profit margin for Airhunters, too.


Team up

DMDS HeinekenNot a single brand or company can tackle a societal issue alone. Therefore, to create real change and impact, collaboration is key. Once you’ve identified the societal issue that is relevant to your users and for which you have assets to offer, consider who else is working on this issue. Heineken teamed up with DJ Armin van Buren to encourage people to consume more responsibly. Their joint campaign “Dance more, drink slow” reduced alcohol intake (and hence abuse) and boosted their brand image.


Aim high, yet start small

HvA-IntegratiedinerTo have real impact, think big and strive for senior level, long-term commitment. But don’t let it stop you if that’s not yet in place. Starting small is the best way to get going and to generate commitment. As long as your initiative is scalable; that it has the potential to have real impact. One of my favorite examples here is the Asito integration dinner. Cleaning service provider Asito uses this to raise awareness of the benefits of a diverse, multi-national workforce. What started with a small-scale event, bringing diverse people together to share a meal in their own headquarters, has grown into a national movement. This year, they’re expecting 25,000 people to join, hosted by Asito offices, Asito’s clients, local community centers, universities and elsewhere.


Innovation opportunities

Sustainability is moving from compliance and (a cut of) the bottom line to the topline. Sustainable thinking and future proof innovation can generate new products and services to boost the topline and a better world simultaneously. A great B2B example is DSM, a Dutch company that transformed its business from coal and chemicals to life sciences. Its Eco+ and People+ solutions are measurably better in terms of environmental or social impact than mainstream products – and profitable, too. DSM has clearly undergone a shift from marketing its sustainability performance to delivering innovative products and services to which its customers respond positively.


New and traditional channels

tony barIntegrating sustainability into marketing works best if there’s a multi-channel and multi-faceted strategy. Transparency is key to building trust in your brand and its sustainability efforts. As is clarity about the goals you’ve set and honesty about the challenges you face. Last but not least, make your sustainability data speak beyond your sustainability report, telling stories large and small across your channels. Let’s come back to Tony’s Chocolonely, which even makes the chocolate bar itself tell the story of how unfairly the benefits are distributed in the cocoa supply chain.


The Q&A that followed my presentation was inspiring, taking us to the cocoa fields in Ghana, to Austrian sustainable fashion concepts and to further examples of brands successfully integrating sustainability into their marketing to sustain their business. And the closing question? “Where can I buy Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate?”


Written by Marjolein Baghuis (@mbaghuis) for Change in Context. To read about interesting people, book reviews and other posts about sustainability, communications and change please subscribe. As the Wharton Global Forum took place in Amsterdam, only Dutch brands feature as examples in this post.


  1. I agree with the title: sustainability can sustain your brand! This is in line with the several trends indicating that marketing is changing. Transparency causes ‘marketing tricks’ to fail. Morality and Technology drive change towards sustainable marketing. Interesting times indeed. So… where can I buy Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate again?

    • Thanks for your comments Tim. Marketing is indeed changing – it can be such a force for good!

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