Integrating Sustainability in Marketing and Branding

An interview with Bart Brüggenwirth, founder of b-open, a sustainable marketing consultancy and author of the book Strong Brands, Better World: The societal purpose as a new perspective for your brand.

In June 2019, Debora van Zee from Agribusiness Academy got to talk to Bart Bruggenwirth about his work on integrating sustainability in marketing and branding. Featuring some great insights and relevant examples for the food & agribusiness sector, this will be an interesting read for those looking to better communicate the unique features of their business.

Debora from Agribusiness Academy: What led to you writing Strong Brands, Better World?

Bart: When I started b-open back in 2003, my mission was to use marketing as an instrument to contribute to a better world. I am still convinced that marketing and business can be a force for good. It was my dream that big corporations, like Unilever, Albert Heijn or Heineken would allocate their marketing budgets to contribute to a better world and inspire consumers to adopt a conscious and sustainable lifestyle. This also has business sense, as society and consumers are becoming more demanding of brands.

Since 2003, I have supported many companies in the process of integrating sustainability in their marketing and branding. I discovered that it was very challenging for my clients to discover the societal purpose of their brand. In order to inspire as many marketeers, entrepreneurs and companies as possible, I decided to write a book about it.

AA: Often marketing in the context of sustainability is referred to as greenwashing or, slightly more positive, the last step to “sell” and convince consumers about the value of our sustainable solutions.

You hold a totally different view on the link between marketing and sustainability. Could you tell us about your vision and how you feel this could help entrepreneurs in food and agribusiness?

B: Combining marketing and sustainability is all about credibility, authenticity and relevance. The fact is that consumers are paying more attention to sustainability. At the same time, they also are cynical about sustainability claims, especially from big corporations.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with communicating about sustainable product features, the contribution to issues in your supply chain or — at a higher level — your societal purpose. They should however always be rooted in your identity, business practices and strategy. Brands should walk their talk!

A societal purpose is not an extra layer you wrap around your brand. That’s not credible and often referred to as greenwashing, as you mentioned. A genuine societal purpose is found when you peel off all layers of your brand and arrive at the core and the true beliefs of your company or brand. It is the heart of your identity. It is crucial that people understand why your brand is committed to this issue or purpose. It should make sense to them.

This is usually the case for social enterprises, like Tony Chocolony’s quest for slave-free chocolate or Greystone Bakery who started baking cookies to realize their mission to create thriving communities through Open Hiring.

However, when a mainstream brand like Nescafé communicates about its fair trade program in its advertising, the risk of being accused of greenwashing is at stake, because consumers may feel it is not authentic. That’s a real challenge for these brands. Providing evidence, a humble tone of voice and tapping into important values or needs of consumers offers a solution.

Only for a small niche of consumers is sustainability in itself a reason to buy. For the majority, it should at least be combined with other benefits, like a better taste, health, convenience or cost savings. For brands in food & agri, the challenge is to find the sweet spots where they meet.

AA: Quite a lot has changed at the forefront of so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) over the past decade. In your book, you talk about the change from defensive to strategic sustainability. Meanwhile marketing has evolved as well.

Could you tell us about how these changes have led to convergence of both fields and what this could mean for creating shared value?

B: CSR used to be about ticking boxes, about taking responsibility on a broad range of societal issues and being held accountable for your actions. Doing business nowadays is about grounding strategy in a wider sense of societal purpose. Marketing is not only about trying to sell more products, it is also about the contribution of a company to ‘society at large’. A company cannot succeed when its actions harm society. Or framed positively: doing well, is doing good. It pays off!

I like to talk about social responsAbility, the power of companies to proactively take action on specific societal issues that match with its competencies and which are within its sphere of influence. It is a strategic challenge. For executives in food & agri, CSR is the second factor (after quality) to build competitive advantage, according to The CEO Agenda, a recent study of the international consultancy firm Berenschot.

So CSR is no longer about balancing the 3 P’s of people, planet and profit. It is about integrating them in a sustainable business model, so they can reinforce each other. A great example is Loop, a new circular shopping platform - a milkman 3.0 — that is built on the concept of long-lasting, multiple reuse packaging. It supported by food companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

AA: From our thorough analysis of business models, we conclude that integrated sustainability is one of the 4 pillars of success. It should be a logical outcome of delivering the core value proposition of the business.

However, often existing companies find it hard to identify how sustainability is, or could be, an integral part of their core value proposition . What would your advice to those companies be?

B: I distinguish three level on which sustainability can be built into your value proposition or brand.

It may be the core or essence of the brand, like for social enterprises as the Vegetarische Slager (Vegetarian butcher — meat substitutes) or the less known but expanding Kipster eggs, which are produced carbon neutral and with respect for animal welfare.

For an increasing number of mainstream brands, sustainability is a strategic pillar. For Heineken, promoting responsible drinking is such a pillar. For the Dutch supermarket chain PLUS, sustainability is one of the pillars providing evidence for their claim ‘good food, we love it’. This strategic pillar plays an important role in communication and is important to gain competitive advantage.

The third level is sustainability as a product attribute or feature. It can be a reassurance that the product is produced sustainably and appears for example as label for fair trade, animal welfare or environment on pack. It may also be communicated low profile, like the fruit juice brand Appelsientje, which explains on its package that its high quality oranges are grown and sourced sustainably.

Sustainability is a generic concept, that covers a wide range of societal issues, especially in food & agri. Think of health, packaging, food waste, fair trade, biodiversity, organic, climate change etc. It is quite impossible to outshine in all these issues.

On all three levels, the choice is still whether you focus on one single issue (like Tony’s, Vegetarische Slager and Heineken) or to embrace more societal issues (like Ben & Jerry’s and Kipster).

So, show the courage to integrate sustainability in your brand. It pays off! At Unilever, its Sustainable Living Brands (like Lipton, Hellman’s, Knorr), grew 46% faster in 2017 than other brands in its portfolio.

(Ed: Read more about Unilever’s purpose led brand performance here.)

AA: To get businesses to adopt sustainable practices often a lot of emphasis is put on risk mitigation and a sound business case.

In your book, you warn companies from adopting this approach as, in your view, it stops businesses from creating real innovation and long term profits out of sustainability. Can you elaborate on this further?

B: Mitigating risk is of course relevant to stay in business and to retain trust. It is part of the defensive approach of CSR, but it is not a strategic challenge.

Adopting sustainability successfully starts with a clear vision of the how the brand and the people involved may effect the important societal issues. This may result in a societal purpose statement of the brand. The mere vision is the driving force. Often it is not possible to build a sound, financially substantiated business case in this stage. The business case will appear along the way. I always argue that this should not restrain companies to move forward with their sustainable ambition, because there appears to be an interesting paradox regarding the business case.

Research of Nyenrode Business University shows that companies that embrace a stewardship approach of CSR, where there is an intrinsic motivation to make a positively contribution to society, perform commercially better than companies in which the business case of CSR is leading. An explanation for this is that their motivation to contribute to a better world fuels creativity, innovation and perseverance.

AA: Could you briefly explain your “purpose-mix strategy” framework and elaborate on how it complements the traditional marketing-mix framework?

B: The purpose-mix covers the four areas in which a brand can bring its purpose alive or can activate its purpose. Just like the marketing-mix covers the four P’s to execute marketing.

The four areas are:

  1. The company’s supply chain and production
  2. Its products and services
  3. The activities to promote a sustainable or conscious lifestyle among consumers
  4. Its community involvement.

The first step is to find out how the societal purpose should be anchored in each area in order to realize the ambitions and have the most impact.

The next step then is to decide about which areas you would like to communicate. I distinguished four strategies that match the four areas:

  1. Leading by example
  2. Promoting green or sustainable heroes (products)
  3. Empowering consumers
  4. Engagement.
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The challenge is to compose the most effective purpose-mix strategy for your brand. This depends on the goals you want to achieve: being either to contribute to the purpose, grow your business and/or to build a credible, sustainable and strong brand.

AA: You’ve studied a lot of cases to see how brand identity can drive sustainability and vice versa. Please share with us your top 5 insights relevant for food and agribusiness.

1. It all starts with a sincere intention: a strong believe which is rooted in your identity.

2. Focus on one or only a few issues in which you can and really want to lead. Food and agri sustainability covers a lot of issues: they all should be covered at a standard level, but that’s not distinctive.

3. Be consistent with a 360 degrees approach. Translate your believe and focus point into a big idea, take a stand and offer concrete evidence by visible actions or innovations. Action speaks louder than words.

4. Be relevant for consumers; tap into the right functional and emotional benefits or values.

5. Make it simple in communications, especially when you want to reach a mainstream audience, which also has other needs.

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If you would like to discuss any of the points in this article, you can email Bart on bart[@]

Find out more at

Those in the Netherlands may also be interested in b-open’s event

Bart’s book Strong Brands, Better World is currently only available in Dutch. You can find the book here:

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