Archive for 2010

There’s no disguising an unsustainable business

Apologies to the duck, but if it looks like an oil company, drills like an oil company, and speaks like an oil company, then it’s probably an oil company. And no amount of green costuming can disguise its true brown nature, especially when the promise of its “product” is now a potential ecological and economic disaster.

In the past decade, BP has positioned itself as a progressive global corporation — beyond petroleum, it would have us believe. In reality, it’s a gigantic oil company that, despite its energy diversifications, is determined to keep feeding our insatiable carbon appetite and making billions for it and its shareholders along the way.

To BP and any other business in an inherently dirty industry, spare us the green preening. A fossil fuel business is not sustainable, OK? 

If only BP would be so honest. Instead it continues to lead with a brand — symbolized by a logo inspired by the Greek god of the sun and bathed in pastoral green — that implies its core value is sustaining life for the planet and all its inhabitants.

Branding consultant Lisa Merriam tells it like is:

“The much-admired green sun BP brand died this week. This is a brand that never left the marketing department. No matter what they said the company stood for, they never lived it. Despite all those smug ads about wind farms and being ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ this shows they are just like any other oil company — their green brand is as dead as all of the wildlife washing up on Louisiana shores.”

While I side with Merriam on this one, the reality is BP’s green reputation hasn’t been warranted for some time, if ever. In April 2008, Sustainable Industries magazine, citing an anonymous source, reported:

(A) top-down decision has been made to pull away from touting any “green” initiatives in the media, and in fact major “green” advertising buys have been canceled. Recent press releases focus not on alternative energy successes as they did in (former CEO Lord) Browne’s time, but on BP’s ability to keep pumping oil, maintain its oil reserves and safely conduct deep-water oil drilling.

A look at the advertising BP features on its website seems to bear this out. Beyond petroleum isn’t an environmental message; it’s an energy security message, as copy in this current BP ad illustrates:

To enhance America’s energy and economic security, we must secure more of the energy we consume. That means expanding the use of wind, solar and biofuels, as well as opening new offshore areas to oil and gas production.

BP doesn’t tout alternative energy sources to help reduce global warming — an environmental message. In fact, it clearly is trying to sway public opinion in favor of allowing more offshore drilling — a decidedly non-green initiative.

While BP isn’t hiding its desire to extract and sell lots more oil, it wants to have its cake and eat it, too: lead with energy security and have us believe it also cares about the environment. Consider this BP advertising headline, “Hydrocarbons and low carbons living in harmony.” Right. And Monsanto has some genetically modified seeds to sell you organic farmers.

BP’s website has the obligatory environmental and society sections, giving the impression of their planetary concern. But look closely at BP’s statement on sustainability:

At BP we define sustainability as the capacity to endure as a group, by:

  • Renewing assets
  • Creating and delivering better products and services that meet the evolving needs of society
  • Attracting successive generations of employees
  • Contributing to a sustainable environment
  • Retaining the trust and support of our customers, shareholders and the communities in which we operate.

Hardly the rhetoric of a company committed to advancing social and environmental health through its company operations. What it tells me is BP cares most about staying in business — “to endure as a group.” The closest it comes to an environmental promise — “contributing to a sustainable environment” — is so vague as to be laughable.

BP’s two-faced approach should not be dismissed as just another instance of greenwashing. It feels more insidious, a cleverly disguised deceit on a global scale. Its incessant search for oil — even in 5,000-foot waters in the Gulf of Mexico — puts BP anywhere but “beyond petroleum.” In the name of “energy security,” BP is willing to risk the kind of ecological calamity now threatening the Gulf region. That is not a risk a sustainable company takes.

The day BP stops drilling is the day I’ll start listening. Until then, let’s make no mistake about the kind of company BP is.


Sustainable branding: Promise is only half the story

“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.


The yin yang of sustainability

Throughout sustainability circles one word is a constant: change. Sustainability is ultimately about instigating, managing and navigating change.

Or so it seems.

Look more closely, however, and the picture appears incomplete. Aren’t we forgetting the yang to the yin of change? It’s worth asking, because many of those we hope to influence value stability far more than change.

This yin yang of sustainability came to mind after watching a provocative video presentation by psychologist Jonathan Haidt about the moral roots of liberals and conservatives. His comments were made within the context of politics. I found them equally relevant to my work as a consultant in sustainable branding, where the role of values is crucial.

Liberals and conservatives

Haidt’s research finds that liberals in societies throughout the world share a common attribute of “openness to experience.” They value novelty, diversity, cross-cultural experiences. They’re comfortable with change. I would say some even insist on it.

Conservatives, on the other hand, value attributes such as safety and dependability. They seek order and stability.

“The great conservative insight,” Haidt told his mostly liberal audience, “is that order is really hard to achieve. It’s really precious, and it’s really easy to lose.”

Haidt was referring to civilized societies. He could just as easily have been speaking of business. The bursting economic bubbles and normal ups and downs of daily business make periods of stability precious indeed. As a businessperson, I love stability — and I’m a liberal.

I don’t know anyone who enjoys making decisions in the midst of chaos or disorder. That may be why businesses tend to be conservative organizations. They seek stability so they can reduce the risk of making poor, hurried decisions and increase the likelihood of success.

Resisting change vs. desiring stability

We’ve long been told humans resist change because we fear the unknown. Dealing with and overcoming resistance to change is how we often frame our most pressing business challenges. We all know the frustrations of executives trying to move their employees in new directions or “change agent” employees trying to persuade their reluctant bosses.

One person’s resistance to change, however, is another person’s desire for stability. There’s a difference. Seeking stability doesn’t automatically mean resisting change. Consider, Haidt says, the gods Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer, two of the three gods in the Hindu trinity (along with Brahma the creator). The worship of stability (Vishnu) and change (Shiva) are foundational in one of the world’s great religions.

In other words, change and stability, far from being enemies, need each other to create a world that’s whole. Or a business in balance.

The liberal narrative

I’d like to think sustainability is an apolitical issue. Still, Haidt’s liberal-conservative characterization helps explain why liberals dominate sustainability gatherings. We love talking about changing the world. It excites us. Gives us purpose. We’re driven to undo all the damage humans and institutions have done to each other and the environment. And we believe our arguments for change are unassailable: How can anyone ignore global warming, decimated ecological systems, the rich-poor divide? Things have to change.

That’s our narrative. And we’ve had some success in spreading its message. More and more businesses are awakening to their social and environmental responsibilities. If Walmart, of all companies, can enjoy acclaim among environmentalists for its sustainability leadership, positive change must indeed be occurring.

Still, the case for sustainability remains a murky work in progress. The disappointing Copenhagen talks proved how divided our world leaders remain on the actions and timetables needed to prevent the worst of climate change (there’s that word again). And despite some high-profile exceptions, business leaders have been slow to see the light of sustainability.

A balanced approach

We’ll reach and influence more people by attending to both sides of the sustainability equation: change and stability. When making the case for sustainability, especially in the realm of business, try speaking less to the need for change and more to the benefits of stability and order.

Demonstrate to executives how the adoption of sustainable business practices lessens the likelihood of disruptive change by creating more resilient organizations. Prove to employees that sustainable practices create a more secure work place. And show customers how your products and services respect their innate desire for reliability and dependability — while doing no harm.

Yes, achieving sustainability requires change. And it produces stability. We’d do well to remember both.

Special thanks to friend Thomas Joseph Doherty for pointing me to Haidt’s video.