Sustainability Leadership Through Branding: A Woman and a Community of 50,000

I recently interviewed a woman affecting positive environmental changes through the process of branding. Branding -- as in, corporate branding done by corporate marketers? Yes, but we must understand how she defines branding first.
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Are you as intrigued as I am observing how people act on their understanding of climate change, sustainable business practices and what can really be done to reverse trends that must be reversed? Do you marvel at the variety of approaches human beings are taking to do their part for the environment?

I recently interviewed a woman affecting positive environmental changes through the process of branding. Branding -- as in, corporate branding done by corporate marketers? Yes, branding, but we must understand how she defines branding first. That idea intrigued me when I heard of the upcoming Sustainable Brands (SB) conference in San Diego, founded by KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz.

What is a sustainable brand? KoAnn defines it as "a better brand that endures by respecting and delighting all stakeholders in both current and future generations."

Two key words that jump out right away are "stakeholders" (not shareholders) and "future." These words are the opposite of short-term, quarterly reporting behavior so common in today's largest publicly-traded companies and brands.

For the definition of brand, KoAnn offered: "First, who you are, what you do, and how you do it; then, how you talk about it."

This order of things is very important.

"One thing that must happen to create a sustainable economy is a shift in how we deal with complex systems," she said. "For example, we've strived hard for efficiency but that ideal doesn't address our global, sustainable needs. We must therefore create a new definition of brand. We must get it to what we do and how, before we ever talk about it."

As a change management expert, she also sees the need for a major shift in business leadership thinking.

"Embedding purpose into the heart of brand is where we're going," she shared. "It's in our individual best interest to care about the interests of others. We've gotten away from our cultural values, with all the talk of competitive advantage. How we get to the desired result is what matters now."

What is a key challenge to this necessary approach?

"Getting the brand managers to engage has been the most difficult task," she revealed. "They've traditionally been measured only on sales, on getting consumers to desire what they want them to want and to buy."

She contrasts that point with what Steve Jobs did famously. He didn't give consumers what they wanted; he created products they never knew could exist!

Given existing organizational disconnects, what's the solution? KoAnn's answer came as she described the most important accomplishment of the SB conference.

"We've been able to get big brands to create cross-functional teams to expand the conversation into one involving multiple stakeholders," she shared. "This includes connecting innovators to big brands."

Leilani Latimer, director of global sustainability initiatives for travel technology company Sabre Holdings, has attended three of KoAnn's SB conferences. She stressed how having shared that creative foundation with colleagues led to brainstorming ideas that were implemented as part of sustainability initiatives across multiple business units. She cited a clever game starring the Travelocity gnome during Earth Week. The game highlighted real operational improvements at New York City's greenest hotels, while making participation fun for consumers. Leilani mentioned another conference characteristic.

"There are no prima donnas there," Leilani said. "The speakers and panelists stick around after the conference so the conversation and co-creation can continue. Everyone there truly wants to be sure they're serving both customers and the environment in a long-lasting and meaningful way."

So what results from these multi-stakeholder conversations?

"We have helped people charged with environmental duties inside organizations to articulate the value proposition of making necessary operational changes," KoAnn said.

This is an important point. KoAnn is demonstrating why the move toward truly sustainable business practices must happen from the inside out. The company whose management doesn't understand that unfortunately begins its so-called green marketing campaign by attempting to persuade consumers to buy their products. When consumers doubt the company really is taking care of the environment, that's when the brand can be damaged.

"Companies make two big mistakes: saying things that aren't true and not saying things that are true," she said. "We're helping them to be authentic, to say the good truth."

She spoke of organizations making important product reformulation, packaging, supply chain and logistics improvements, changes that truly minimize negative environmental impacts. Yet, these positive changes somehow don't make it into their marketing story. At the Harrah's hotel and casino in Las Vegas, for example, the staff diligently sorts the garbage behind the hotel to minimize landfill-bound waste. Yet, neither front office staff nor guests know of this zero-waste-to-landfill practice.

"Management has chosen to not tell their customers because they don't want to guilt them into thinking they should do this," KoAnn explained.

That decision says a lot more about the consuming public than it does about the organization, but therein lays the complexity of KoAnn's work. Her work focuses on getting consumers and brands on the same side. She knows businesses can get to a point where they are minimizing their negative impacts on the environment while creating value for their many stakeholders. She's working the tough change management processes from the inside, helping the globe's biggest brands practice the new branding, in the right order.

The rest is our responsibility as consumers. Are we demanding real accountability, real behavioral changes and real operational changes from our favorite brands? Do we reward companies that deliver necessary changes that damage our planetary home less? Do we punish those who attempt to achieve sales benefits without doing the work inside the organization first? Are we are intelligent enough to learn the difference?

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