Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category

The sustainable virtues of slow brand

This may be the first and only time you see the words “cathedral thinking” and “slow brand” used in the same sentence. Allow me to explain.

Last week I heard New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin refer to cathedral thinking as he spoke of his reporting on the daunting ecological challenges that confront us all. The effort needed to prevent the worst from happening will take enormous long-term commitment. The kind that compelled generations of humans past to build great religious monuments over decades, even centuries, knowing they would never experience the full fruits of their labor.

Gaudi Cathedral

Gaudi Cathedral

I think of the Gaudi Cathedral in Barcelona, whose construction began in 1882 and continues today — 127 years later and 83 years after the death of its famed architect Antoni Gaudi.

I suppose only someone like me would ponder branding as Revkin spoke. I jotted down on my notepad the words slow brand. I had never seen or heard those two words used together, although a subsequent web search shows at least one blog by the name.

There are emerging slow food and slow money movements, but no slow brand movement. That’s understandable. Who in business wants “slow” to describe anything about them?

Painstakingly constructing a cathedral is no metaphor for how most companies and their brands are built. In the hyper-competitive world of business, speed is of the essence. We don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going there fast. We want a brand — stat!

Fast brand, slow brand

Companies that embrace the principles of sustainability will quite naturally take their foot off the accelerator. Sustainability requires a fundamental restructuring in how we conduct business. By holding itself accountable for the environmental and social impacts of its actions, a sustainable business doesn’t take shortcuts to success.

How we build our company brand matters. Weak ones are little more than facades. At best their value is aesthetic. Good ones are strong foundations. They allow businesses to stand the test of time because they’re solid, substantial, dependable, built with a sense of purpose and a whole lot of sweat equity. For me this describes slow brand — not a type of brand, but an approach to building a brand that gains strength over time.

How does slow brand compare with fast brand? Let me take a crack at drawing some distinctions:

  • Fast brand is led by marketing. Slow brand is led by mission. Fast brand is isolated to marketing. The rest of the company pays it little or no attention. Slow brand supports the mission of a company, its reason for being. Just as a mission’s accomplishment requires an entire company, so does the building of a brand.
  • Fast brand is how we look. Slow brand is who we are. Fast brand is obsessed with appearance: cool, innovative, powerful, smart. Slow brand is committed to substance. Integrity matters above all.
  • Fast brand is a promise communicated. Slow brand is a promise fulfilled. Fast brand reduces itself to messages delivered by creative marketers. Slow brand knows a company’s actions speak louder than its words.
  • Fast brand is purchased. Slow brand is earned. Fast brand loves media plans: broadcast, social, print. It works inside-out. Slow brand loves satisfied customers, employees and other stakeholders. It works outside-in.

Putting the CEO in charge

The longer I work at the intersection of branding and sustainability, the more convinced I am that brand ownership cannot be left to a marketing team. Ultimate brand responsibility must rest with the CEO. This is especially important for a business that’s making sustainability a brand cornerstone — a so-called sustainable brand. Stating a commitment to sustainability heightens the expectations of a company’s practices. And only the CEO is positioned to ensure every employee fulfills the promise of sustainability inherent in the mission and brand.

If your business is striving for sustainability, you know the transition won’t happen overnight. It will take concentrated effort over a long period of time. You may not be building a cathedral, but it may help to think you are.


A question we’re not trained to ask

What is enough?

Good question. And one businesspeople rarely consider. I asked Massachusetts-based consultant Jen Cohen why.

Because you are trained to ask ‘How do I get more?’ You are not trained to ask the question (of enough). Success in business has historically meant constant accumulation. So why would you ask ‘What is enough?’ It is a heretical question, in the frame of Wall Street or the current business model. We need a model where there is room for that question.

Cohen and her business partner Gina LaRoche co-founded Seven Stones Leadership to help businesses and individuals explore the question of enough. They base their practice on the principles of “sufficiency,” an emerging area of consulting that proves to be a natural complement to sustainability.

Jen Cohen

Jen Cohen

I’ve had the good fortune of working with Cohen and LaRoche, both as a branding consultant and a client. I’ve learned that sufficiency, like sustainability, defies easy definition. LaRoche comes at sufficiency from multiple perspectives: “It’s a practice. It’s an inquiry. It’s a way of life. A challenge, a business model.”

Author Lynne Twist inspired an ongoing conversation on sufficiency with her 2003 book, The Soul of Money. Writing from 20 years experience as a successful fundraiser for nonprofits, she lays bare the myths of scarcity that most of us tell ourselves: there’s not enough, more is better, that’s just the way it is.

Cohen sees these myths play out daily in her work.

There’s not one person who comes into my office and tells the story about how sufficient they are. Not one person. The story that every single person who comes into my office tells is how they are swinging on the pendulum between inadequacy, not having enough, and excess.

Gina LaRoche

Gina LaRoche

LaRoche says businesspeople avoid the question of enough as they do many tough questions. It comes down to what LaRoche calls “the diffusion of responsibility” prevalent among organizations. We tell ourselves, LaRoche says, “That’s not my problem. There’s someone else in charge. Someone else who can make that decision.” All the way up to the CEO who defers to the board.

The scarcity in sustainability

The language of the sustainability movement is often couched in terms of scarcity and excess: not enough clean air and water, not enough forested land, too much carbon pollution, not enough political will.

It isn’t a myth to say we live on a planet with finite resources. But that’s not the whole story, according to Twist. “Abundance is a fact of nature,” she writes. “It is a fundamental law of nature, that there is enough and it is finite.”

Seeing the world as abundant and finite, we revere the earth’s limited resources and pledge to manage them in a way that does the most good for the most people. From a mindset of scarcity, businesses and individuals believe there’s not enough for everyone. And may the fittest survive.

In a self-fulfilling act, the scarcity mentality drives us to make and consume more to be among the survivors, ensuring there indeed won’t be enough for all.

Marketers routinely capitalize on the pervasive sense of scarcity: Act now, supplies won’t last! Harvard marketing professor John Quelch is one proponent: “Creating the illusion of scarcity can be a smart marketing strategy.”

Valuing depth in business

Many companies are struggling with the loss of revenue, customers and employees as the recession wears on. If scarcity is our default setting, most businesses are in default mode right now.

One way to flip the switch is to imagine what operating a business from a sense of abundance, of having enough, of being enough would be like. Cohen says it would be fundamentally different. You would no longer privilege breadth or expansion, or be ruled by the axiom “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

I would say in a sufficiency model where the infinity rests is in depth: depth of richness, depth of interdependence, depth of creativity, depth of serving people. You can stay in the infinite possibility of your work making a difference in the world, or your work reaching people or your work mattering or your business mattering.

The practice of sufficiency works hand-in-glove with sustainability. Those of us striving to operate our businesses sustainably will not succeed if our constant guide is the experience of fear, scarcity, not enough. Even if I’m wrong, what’s the point of joyless sustainability?

So what is enough? Twist answers, “Each of us determines that for ourselves, but very rarely do we let ourselves have that experience.”

What better time than now?


As sustainability spreads, customers want numbers

After years on the business fringe, life cycle assessments are moving closer to the mainstream as sustainable practices spread. The trend signals a growing customer desire to see and compare the numbers behind marketers’ claims of sustainability.

Last week Deloitte Consulting, a decidedly mainstream business, released a new whitepaper, “Lifecycle Assessment: Where is it on your sustainability agenda?” Joel Makower refers to the paper in an excellent article on the “renaissance of lifecyle thinking.” An LCA, Deloitte says, “charts the course of all inputs and outputs, and their resulting environmental impacts for a given product system throughout its lifecycle.” The paper’s authors write:

Sustainability is now widely accepted as a core business issue rather than a passing fad. However, particularly in light of the current downturn, many stakeholder groups are no longer satisfied with vague assertions that green is really ‘gold,’ or that green products are in fact better for the environment. Customers (both businesses and consumers), investors, environmental interest groups, and governments are pressuring companies for enhanced quantification of environmental impacts.

This increased external demand is fueling the use of LCAs. Clearly, Deloitte sees a business opportunity in helping its clients produce them. Nevertheless, Deloitte’s paper echos the themes of author Daniel Goleman in his new book, “Ecological Intelligence,” which I wrote about in a previous post. Goleman cites LCAs as the data backbone for emerging online services that enable businesses and consumers to make purchase decisions based on hard numbers for the environmental (and in some cases, social) impacts of a product.

Although the early LCAs date back to the 1960s, Goleman describes how far they have come in sophistication and detail:

Never before have we had the methodology at hand to track, organize, and display the complex interrelationships among all the steps from extraction to manufacture of goods through their use to their disposal—and summarize how each step matters for ecosystems, whether in the environment or in our body.

Deloitte cites several marketing and communications benefits for companies employing LCAs. Besides supporting marketing claims about a product’s “environmental friendliness,” it can enhance a company’s reputation:

LCA can demonstrate that a company has moved beyond surface-level sustainability window-dressing to a deeper commitment to improved environmental impact…However, as LCA becomes more common, it will no longer serve as a differentiator in itself; it is the actual results—and what they say about a company’s environmental progress—that will matter to stakeholders.

LCAs can be complex and costly to produce. This puts them out of reach of most smaller producers and manufacturers. Deloitte says these and other firms may want to consider an LCA “lite” approach that is less data intensive.

LCAs are not appropriate for every business, but there’s an underlying message for marketers in their widening use. “Becoming sustainable” and “going green” are well past the sloganeering stage. More customers and other stakeholders are asking for quantifiable progress. So before you make that next sustainability claim, you’d do well to have the numbers to back it up. Only your competitors will be unhappy to see them.


Five questions your business should be asking

My business inspiration today comes from an unlikely source, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

Tom Friedman, in his latest New York Times column, credits Fayyad for his leadership in improving conditions in the West Bank. Here’s the part I like. Freidman quotes Fayyad about his approach to governing: “tell people who you are, what you are about and what you intend to do and then actually do it.”

Those are words to live by as a politician. I could imagine them coming just as easily from the mouth of an effective business owner or executive. Fayyad’s simple philosophy can instruct any of us in business, especially after an unforgivable period of corporate excess and ethical lapses have left so many of us staggered, angry and jaded. In this environment, opportunity lies with businesses that act with higher purpose and integrity — the ones that keep their promises.

Here are five questions every business ought to be asking (and answering) today:

  1. What is my business ultimately pursuing? For many companies, the honest answer to this one is maximum shareholder return or more sales or more profits. The pursuit is financial. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s worth asking, is financial success really what you want the measure of your business to be? Or is money  only an enabler, making it possible to pursue a larger social or environmental vision?
  2. What is my business trying to accomplish? I’ve heard vision described as something to be pursued and mission as something to be accomplished. I like that distinction. For example: “We pursue clean, fresh water for all. Our contribution to this effort is producing low-cost, long-lasting water purification systems for individuals.” I also think of mission as the reason a business exists. We exist to accomplish something. What is that for your business? Is your purpose clear? Does it inspire you and your employees and customers?
  3. What do we promise? Ask yourself what you want every stakeholder — customer, employee, supplier, partner, investor, community citizen — to experience from your business. This is an experience you strive to create for everyone, at all times. It’s what you stand for, the essence of your business. It’s what keeps customers returning and employees staying. And it can’t be taken lightly. As Fayyad has demonstrated, doing what you say you’ll do can have profound impact.
  4. What makes us different? So you’re clear-eyed about the difference your business is trying to make and the experience you want others to have of your firm. The question now is where that places you versus the businesses competing directly or indirectly for the customers and other stakeholders you’re targeting. Study your competitors and what others are saying about them. Ask customers and others what makes your firm different. If you don’t like their answers, you have some work to do.
  5. What makes us relevant? A company may have the distinction of producing the world’s only sustainably made, solar-powered 8-track player, but, really, who cares? Sure, the business is different. It’s also irrelevant! The key is to be distinct and relevant. What do your stakeholders most value about your firm today? Do you matter to them in important ways or only superficially? Survey them to find out.

My work is helping businesses wrestle with these  fundamental questions. It’s far more than a marketing or branding exercise. My clients establish their firm’s reason for being and core identity. They give purpose and direction to the decisions and actions of every individual and group within their company. Best of all they put themselves in position to make a difference — “and then actually do it.”


Marketing in a world of eco-intelligent consumers

Many marketers don’t feel obligated to know or otherwise take responsibility for the entire environmental and social story of the products they help develop, promote and sell. If they’re not careful, their customers may know the full story before they do, leaving them with a potential sales and reputation mess to clean up.

Daniel Goleman, author of the popular book “Emotional Intelligence,” explains the growing empowerment of eco- or social-minded shoppers in his new book “Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Impact of What We Buy Can Change Everything.” Goleman says consumers face an information gap that prevents them from easily knowing and comparing the personal, social and environmental health impacts of individual products they are considering for purchase. That gap, however, is closing, thanks to the emergence of new mobile and point-of-purchase information technology that makes it easier to access the accumulating ecological and social data and ratings of individual products.

The hope and the promise Goleman sees for these new forms of IT is “radical transparency.”

Ecological transparency becomes radical when its analysis encompasses the entire life cycle of a product and the full range of its consequences at every stage, and presents that information to a buyer in ways that demand little effort…Radical transparency means tracking every substantial impact of an item from manufacturing to disposal—not just its carbon footprint and other environmental costs but its biological risks, as well as its consequences for those who labored to make it—and summarizing those impacts for shoppers as they are deciding what to purchase.

Goleman credits the company GoodGuide for its pioneering efforts to equip the shopping public with “comprehensive and rigorous information at the point of purchase.” GoodGuide’s technology platform is still in beta form, but it shows potential for dramatically tilting the information playing field in the direction of the consumer. According to Goleman:

GoodGuide surfaces a product’s backstory. It can calculate the specific environmental impacts during manufacture, transport, use, and disposal. It can perform this calculation down to a single chemical among a batch of ingredients. On a macro level, it can rate how well a given company stacks up against others in its field on environmental, health, or social performance, as well as determine which brand or company has been getting better over time. GoodGuide can evaluate a company’s policies, its disclosure of key information on products, and ultimately a company’s impacts on consumers, workers, communities, and the environment.

And now GoodGuide offers a free iPhone app that provides mobile access to data on more than 70,000 products, according to its website. Goleman says GoodGuide has harnessed decades of industrial ecology research to provide precise metrics of various processes and products. Perhaps most significantly from a marketing standpoint, “GoodGuide cuts through greenwashing to the underlying facts,” Goleman says.

Although GoodGuide remains at beta stage, Goleman says the tool is nonetheless “a concrete example of how radical transparency might work” in the aisles of shoppers’ favorite stores. It may be a Microsoft or a Google that ultimately provides the transparency system that is most widely accepted. In any case, Goleman sounds confident it won’t be long before consumers have fast, convenient access to information that helps them align their purchases with their values at the place and time they’re ready to buy. I share his confidence.

For marketers, the takeaway is this: Your customers will eventually have all the credible facts they need to decide whether your company or product satisfies their health and sustainability values and how you compare to your competitors. At that point, you’ll have little choice but to ensure the stories you tell about your company and products square with the facts your customers will have at their fingertips. Do you know your products’ “environmental impacts during manufacture, transport, use, and disposal” down to a single chemical used in its ingredients? And how about the labor and trade conditions up and down your supply chain? It’s only a matter of time before not knowing or not caring to know that information will come back to bite the offending company either in lost sales or in damaged image.

The “radical transparency” Goleman describes won’t appear overnight and it may never be fully realized in the market nor embraced by the consumer, but the information trends are clearly working in favor of the customer, whether a business or an individual. One of the trend drivers is demographics. In an interview last month with public television’s Bill Moyers, Goleman said he believes the younger generations have the greatest motivation to preserve the world and their ever-expanding use of social media will accelerate the sharing of consumer knowledge. This, he says, will create a shift “that will make it not only feasible for companies, but actually essential for companies to do the right thing.”

Smart marketers will get ahead of the trend and make radical transparency their competitive advantage.

Update: As I was about to publish this post I came across Joel Makower’s review on June 17 of Goleman’s book. He isn’t nearly as optimistic as Goleman about the transformative potential of radical transparency, for either consumers or producers. “I can’t argue with the premise, but my 20 years of watching the green marketplace leaves me, well, unsold,” Makower writes. Goleman responds to Makower here. He says, “I don’t believe the last 20 years offer apt data points for projecting the next 20. It’s the future I’m talking about, not the past.” I’d suggest you read the book and decide for yourself.

Update: Daniel Goleman references my post in a piece he wrote for Harvard Business here.


Looking for the brand among all the branding

I left a day-long conference on branding this week inspired in several new directions. But I couldn’t shake a nagging question: In our fascination with the new tools of branding are we forgetting what we’re supposed to be building—namely, the brands of our businesses?

I found inspiration in the material of several speakers who persuaded me the latest mobile devices we otherwise call cellphones are a cultural game changer. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say their impact will be as great as radio, television, personal computers and the Internet were when they emerged on the scene. I understand why marketers are salivating at the prospect of turning these smart devices into conduits for branding and promotion. The conference also deepened my appreciation for the branding possibilities of social media. One presenter says they’re transforming our customer dialogues into “multilogues.”

Lost in all the buzz this conference and others like it generate around mobile and social media and other leading-edge branding techniques is the brand itself. We seem to be taking the brands of our businesses for granted. We assume our businesses have a clear, shared understanding of what we stand for and what makes us different and relevant. So rather than concern ourselves with the basics of the brand, we obsess over how to use the hip branding tools du jour, such as Facebook, Twitter and iPhone apps.  

As marketers, we can’t afford to confuse branding with the brand itself. Branding is doing, brand is being—it’s who we are as a business. It’s easy to let the doing of marketing consume us, especially when there are far more cool ways to connect with customers than ever before. We get into trouble when our eagerness to deploy compelling technology blinds us to why we exist and who we are as a business or brand. These fundamental questions of being are unchanging, whether for humans or for human organizations. They’re also questions many businesses and marketers avoid. They require a period of introspection and reflection that many businesses feel they can’t afford. They’re moving too fast, they tell themselves.

Or perhaps the existential questions of purpose and meaning make us uncomfortable—what if we discover there’s no there there in our business? So as marketers we busy ourselves with the doing, the branding. And we add the likes of Twitter, Facebook and mobile marketing to the still unfinished business of perfecting blogs, websites, webinars and other digital channels. We end up building brands in the way improv artists make up the story as they go along. The process may be entertaining, but the resulting brand is purely random.

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up someplace else.”