Are brands the problem or the solution when it comes to creating serious change? At Forum for the Future, we look for levers we can pull to bring down some systemic barriers to sustainability. I’m definitely in the camp that sees brands as a lever, rather than a barrier. Why? Partly because I think the box of potential solutions to our current sustainability crisis is a bit on the empty side. But mostly because I think brands have the potential to shift systems. ‘How on earth can brands do that?’, I hear you cry. In three ways.
First up, brands can lead, and create demand, when hitherto there was none. Henry Ford famously said, ‘If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’. Brands have the ability to give people what they want before they know they want it. They also have the ability to normalise behaviours, expectations and desires.
Take the story of shampoo. Before the advent of indoor plumbing, washing hair was inconvenient and happened only about once a month. Instead, women brushed their hair a hundred times a night to spread natural oils and remove older, excess oil and dirt. In 1930, Dr John Breck of Springfield, Massachusetts, developed one of the world’s first pH-balanced shampoos. At first it was known only in New England in the US. Then his son Edward took over the company. He hired an illustrator named Charles Sheldon to draw pastel portraits of ‘Breck girls’. It was a stroke of branding genius that made Breck shampoo synonymous with beauty. By the 1950s, most middle-class women washed their hair once a week. In the 1970s, Breck girls migrated from illustrations to real people, including models, and brands began running high-profile campaigns to convince women to wash their hair every day.
As a result of daily shampooing, women washed the natural oils from their hair, which created the need for this new stuff we call conditioner.
Granted, the story doesn’t shine with sustainability lustre, but it shows the power of brands to change the way we behave. Mike Markkula, one of the first investors in Apple, came up with the Apple Marketing Philosophy.
“The idea of understanding a consumer’s needs before they actually needed what Apple was making has remained a hallmark of the company throughout its history. The idea of empathising with a consumer before a market was even developed set Apple on the path of perpetually looking forward to find how people would behave.”
Just imagine if this brand magic was applied to the challenge of creating demand for sustainability. There are already successful examples out there. Method, for example, has redefined the relatively boring cleaning category into one festooned with good looking and safe products.
Second, brands can bring long-term research and development ambitions to life. Many businesses have an R&D pipeline, but bringing those future insights into the development of today’s products can be challenging. By asking, how might my brand deliver these future innovations – in a way that resonates with my consumers’ (often anticipated) needs, brands can act as the super-highway for product innovation.
Take Unilever’s Pureit, a water purifier for domestic use in those countries where unsafe drinking water is still the norm. The innovation behind this simple device comes from Unilever’s R&D laboratory in Bangalore. The brand is the mechanism which brings this potentially life-saving device to market.
Third, brands can create the conditions for wider change. This is an emerging area, and one which is potentially the most game changing. Nike’s business strategy is all about shifting to a closed loop business model. Such a model isn’t possible today: the infrastructure simply isn’t in place. How can Nike create the conditions to be able to make that shift over time? For one, its free Making App encourages designers to use the Nike Materials Sustainability Index Database, giving them the information they need to see the environmental impact of material choices. This is helping to drive demand for sustainable materials by empowering designers to make better choices. And then there is Launch 2020, an open innovation competition to find game-changing solutions to sustainability challenges that can scale in two years.
So, brands can create demand, bring innovations to market, and influence the world around them. Clearly one brand can adopt all three strategies, or switch between them depending on market and product. But a brand unwilling to experiment with any of these strategies, in my view, will become a brand from the past, not a brand that can last.
Sally Uren is CEO, Forum for the Future.
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