Posts Tagged ‘sustainable business’
“Promises are like babies,” an unknown author once said. “Easy to make, hard to deliver.”
Sounds like a good reason to never make a promise. Or better yet, good reason to think long and hard before making one.
Countless branding books and consultants describe a brand as a promise. That’s an inside-out view. If I’m on the outside looking at your business, I don’t care whether you make a promise. I care whether you keep it. My guess is millions of Toyota owners feel similarly today about that company’s promise of quality.
Promises have no value until or unless they’re consistently fulfilled. That gets lost among many who make their living in branding, communications and design. I used to be among them. Branding meant communicating a promise and persuading others to pay attention. If I did that well, I was doing my job.
My certainty about all of this gave way as I delved deeper into sustainability and carved out a sustainable branding practice. Everywhere it seemed, marketers were jumping onto the green marketing bandwagon. Meanwhile, consumer complaints of “greenwashing” kept growing as marketers used one hand to paint their companies or products green and the other to cover their eyes to the brown.
Words and deeds
Sustainable branding is not simply marketing communications by another name. It’s aligning what you stand for as a business with what people experience from you. Greenwashing does the opposite: It misaligns words and deeds.
Companies have been saying one thing and doing another forever. What’s changed is the technology and desire to call them out. Social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook and user-generated sites such as Yelp will expose hypocritical businesses in a heartbeat. And nowhere is the B.S. radar on higher alert than when a company speaks of social or environmental responsibility. People may overlook the advertisement that overstates a product’s benefits. But many can’t wait to bust the company that promises — and fails — to do good.
Carefully researched, considered and cultivated, a brand moves a business toward competitive distinction and customer relevance. Unfortunately, most businesses leave brand management to marketing communications. They equate branding with names, logos, taglines, messages, advertising campaigns and a consistent “look & feel.”
Where the buck stops
What our businesses say and how we look matters when separating ourselves as a brand. But not nearly as much as what we do as a business.
Want your brand to stand out from the crowd? Then let your actions do more of the talking. Nothing communicates as convincingly as a company whose employees, culture and operations consistently deliver a distinct, relevant product, service or experience.
This doesn’t happen by accident. It requires a CEO and senior managers who ensure their company walks it talk. Unless your marketing department runs the company, the branding buck must stop with the people who have ultimate authority to motivate, train or cajole everyone to deliver on the company’s core promise.
Stepping onto the path of sustainability makes this more imperative than ever.
When you pledge to build a more sustainable company, it’s like handing a magnifying glass to your customers, employees and other stakeholders and inviting them to inspect your every move. Witness the emergence of greenwashing watchdogs.
Living the brand
The prospect of greater scrutiny frightens some executives. Others say bring it on. They know integrity and accountability have always been hallmarks of great companies. And they don’t fear the added weight of social and environmental responsibility that a commitment to sustainable business practices demand. They’re simply trying to do the right thing.
But even their firms may need help living their brands. That’s why I’ve formed a team of experts in organizational development, sustainability, research, design and storytelling.
I look forward to sharing more about our collaboration soon. But you can be sure we’re clear on one thing: Making a promise is the easy part of branding. It’s the delivery we need to worry about.
Sunday’s Oregonian attempts to explain what sustainable businesses might learn from the closure of apparel maker Nau early this month. The paper draws a conclusion similar to my immediate reaction when I heard the news: that Nau’s ambition got the best of it.
The Oregonian’s assessment is too brief to be of significant value to existing or would-be green entrepreneurs. For instance, the paper responds to one of its own questions, “Is a sustainable business unsustainable?”:
Nau wasn’t around long enough to tell. And certainly, organic food companies have profited as demand increases. And renewable energy ventures — biofuel, solar power — still attract investors’ bets. “There are a lot of sustainable plays that are more capital efficient and less risky,” said David Kirkpatrick, founder of SJF Ventures, a Durham, N.C.-based firm that invests in green companies.
I’m sure the paper felt compelled to ask this question because many who heard the news of Nau are probably asking it. It would be sad indeed if people concluded from Nau’s experience that operating a business with social, environmental and profit motivations equally in mind cannot be sustained long-term. Unfortunately, the paper’s response to its question doesn’t really get at the answer.
How about we flip the question: Is an unsustainable business sustainable? Or ask it from a macro view: Can our economy continue to run indefinitely on the backs of companies whose only measurement of success is financial return?
Throughout our history as a country that’s the way business has operated. And the American economy has flourished as a result. But for how much longer can this go on? Especially as China, India and other countries look to duplicate our success.
I hope people don’t see Nau’s failed attempt at “challenging the nature of capitalism” as evidence our economic system does not need serious repair. Yes, the company’s ambition exceeded its reach. But the folks at Nau knew there’s nothing sustainable about business as usual. And we all need to pick up where they left off.