Building a sustainable brand is about answering these three simple, straightforward questions:

How green is your product?

How socially inclusive is your production?

How do you communicate to the world these two aspects of environmental and social sustainability?

Green Innovation

Marketing and brand building starts from innovation, in other words, what do you sell? We need to get our innovation right. Innovation means coming up with a product that is faster, better and cheaper than the one already available in the market. If a new product meets these time, cost, quality parameters, it becomes a great product. But today what we all want to know is that can such a great product be a good product too? That is, can it also be socially inclusive and environmentally friendly?

In addition to our eagerness to meet the needs of our customers, in the past, product innovation was driven by the needs of just the market segments — we were good at segment thinking. But the future belongs to those brands that also do systems thinking. That is, if they expand their horizon to include the concerns of social and environmental systems as well.

Globally, the amount of resources we currently use is 1.5 times the world’s resource capacity. There is an unprecedented demand for land, food, water, clean air, and other commodities. So, whatever products we produce — and how we produce them — should consume less resources. McKinsey calls for nothing less than a “Resource Revolution” which is all about efficient use of available resources.

Let us come to society. Today, the gap between haves and have-nots is so big. The richest 1% of the world’s population owns 50% of the world’s total wealth. So our production should be socially inclusive — it should create a lot of direct and indirect employment or reduce inequity in society in whatever ways possible. Job-led growth is the way forward.

I can cite Mangaldeep, ITC’s agarbathi, as a good example of taking the society along to market success. ITC produces one billion agarbathis per month. But the company sources agarbattis from self help groups and small-scale and cottage units, providing livelihood opportunities for more than 14,000 rural population.

Effective communication

If innovating for resource efficiency and social equity is one part of the story of creating a sustainable brand, the other part lies in creating awareness and marketing in an engaging way.

Today customers want to know two things: what problems we choose to address, and how different our approach is. Whether it is automobile or software or healthcare, the millennial customers want to know not just what we sell but also what we stand for.

This means marketers need to communicate not only about their products and product features but also about their corporate values, belief systems, corporate behaviour, organizational culture, corporate governance, wealth distribution, and so on. But communicate it in a way that is credible.

As marketers we have always practiced storytelling that relies mostly on creative communication. Storytelling is what makes our advertisements work and it is what makes our public relations work. However, we must note that the influence of paid media is dwindling. People do not trust paid media as much as they trust word of mouth. They value what their friends and other customers say more than what they read in newspaper or watch in TV. They will buy stories only when they see them in action.

This distrust with media had happened in developed countries long ago. It is happening in India now. With the explosion of social media and digital media, word of mouth, reviews, recommendations are coming back to influence customer’s purchase decisions. So, what will work in this era is storydoing.

We must show actions on the ground to win the attention, trust and the hearts of people. That is why it is called ‘earned media’. We should earn the trust of customers and make them our ambassadors. This is very natural way of marketing for a sustainable brand.

Social and sustainable brands like the US brand TOMS Shoes is a good example of success in storydoing and word of mouth marketing. Founded in 2006, TOMS has become a US$ 400 million brand that is built entirely by earned media and new ways of marketing. The company designs and sells shoes. But what makes TOMS different is its business model of “one for one concept” — that is, the company promises to deliver a pair of free, new shoes to a child in need for every sale of their retail product.

TOMS has given over 60 million pairs of shoes to children in developing countries like where the health and social benefits would be the highest. For example, TOMS distributes free shoes in Ethiopia where the shoes are intended to help prevent a soil-borne disease (Podoconiosis), a disease of the lymph vessels of the lower extremities that is caused by chronic exposure to irritant soils and which largely affected women and children.

TOMS is now into selling eyewear. With every pair of eyewear sold, a part of the profit is used to save or restore the eyesight for people in developing countries.

TOMS is selling Coffee. With each purchase of TOMS coffee, the company provides 140 liters of safe water (a one-week supply) to a person in need.

TOMS is selling bags. With each purchase of TOMS bags, the company distributes birth kits to help a woman safely deliver her baby.

TOMS has achieved marketing success and built a 400 million brand not by advertising or marketing in traditional ways, using traditional media but by word-of-mouth advocacy and community action. Every year, 50 TOMS fans are selected to travel with the company to assist with the shoe-giving mission. These fans have to create personal pages on the TOMS site, do a short write-up about why they should be selected, and get friends, family and other fans to vote for them. Imagine the credibility factor of such stories when they are written by customers themselves.

TOMS created a phenomena “One Day Without Shoes”. It encouraged people to spend a normal day barefoot, allowing them to empathize with children around the world who don’t have the luxury of shoes. The event has been held annually since 2007, with 1,600 events around the world. It is calculated that as many as 290,000+ people shared their photos of barefoot or TOMS shoes on Instagram alone when the campaign was launched.

Imagine what all these can contribute to brand reach and brand building. Let me quote what Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, has to say about his way of marketing:

“People connect with us because buying Toms is like a badge that says, “I did something for someone.” If we can give customers the feeling of giving back, we can extend into Toms Hotels or Toms Banking or other ideas we haven’t come up with yet, because the One for One model can be relevant to many things consumers do.”

Sustainable brands must explore such new social ways of marketing. Let me leave you with this thought that every business has an informal and moral contract with the society and the environment. For every sustainable brand, we have to adopt this twin-pronged strategy: one, creating value for society and environment and two, taking the message across effectively. Other than the 3 parameters of Faster, Cheaper & Better, this twin-pronged strategy creating value for society and environment and Storydoing, we can also build a Sustainable Brand. The future belongs to us.