Bridging Ambition & Reality: The 5 Sustainability Action Gaps for Brands

20 Jul 2018
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Ed Adamson

Sustainability is rising to the top of every exec’s agenda. What does it really mean for brands—and how do you achieve it profitably?

Over 5 courses of delicious, sustainably sourced food with 12 industry experts, our recent LPK Supper Club on sustainability offered us an irresistible amount of food for thought—tensions and provocations—that we wanted to share to keep feeding this conversation.

From GMO crops and the hygiene benefits of hand dryers vs. paper towels, to a musical history of sustainability, our experts covered it all. And on the whole, the conversation was optimistically cautious. “Optimistic” because the sustainable agenda has risen up the ladder. We are all heading toward a similar destination, where sustainability is an everyday, valued part of business. And I say “cautious” because there were constant reminders that the commercial agenda is king. All the action gaps had an underlying risk vs. reward tension, which presented some sizeable roadblocks along the way.

Over the course of the evening, we captured 5 sustainable action gaps:

1. What people say vs. what people do

We have target audiences that care more than ever before about current and future generations. They will turn their backs on brands they don’t believe care, impulsively. Yet rationally, they aren’t following through on their values when it comes to putting their money where their heart is.

So how can brands deliver experiences that meet the rational and emotional desires of their target audience?

There is an urgent need to truly understand who your consumer / customer is, not at a rational level but at a primal one. Why is your brand desirable to them at a gut level; is sustainability ever top of mind for them when they interact with your brand or category? How can you help people meet their desires (not yours!) in a way that builds sustainability into the integrity of your offer? Are you pushing sustainable solutions without any real market pull? Step away from the what and obsess about the why—just because your team can deliver something, doesn’t mean that you always should.

To keep us all on our toes as we think about the why—the public perceptions of sustainability are always shifting…

2. Tangible totems vs. transparent truths

“Where do we start with sustainability? How do we know what’s best to focus on considering how fast opinions change when it comes to sustainability?”, was a common challenge for the group.

Let’s use plastic as a case study. All of our attendees were grateful for the “Blue Planet Effect” and the passion surrounding ocean plastic. It certainly brings a much-needed public focus and urgency to sustainable issues generally.

But… it does create a “plastic is evil” totem. A totem being something that is tangible, easy to grasp but rather naively inflated in the public eye. It makes plastic a scapegoat when actually, in many cases, plastic is the hero that enables us to provide essentials for the billions of people on the planet whilst managing waste, an issue that is far more impactful on the environment.

Should your focus be on these “tangible totems” or more “publically transparent” issues, such as the global waste collection infrastructure that is not allowing us to re-capture value?

“Consumer attitudes are moving forward. The more visibly you move with them, the better.”

To be clear, we’re not disputing the issue around plastic and the need for urgent action… although there was a frustration with the effort required to constantly defend it! Rather, we’re highlighting the crippling action gap that is created when you feel overwhelmed by the mixed messages, hype and general lack of consistency surrounding sustainability.

How can you read between the lines, see the truths, back the winning horse?

Maybe the answers are found in our conversations around the importance of expert collaboration, not silos…

3. Segmented silos vs. circular ambition

There has never been a more important time to involve experts to help brands see the wood for the trees and to focus efforts on what has the most sustainable and commercial impact for all.

The willingness for businesses to be more circular in their approach was clear, but how can you be circular if you operate in segmented business silos? It seems that there are still many situations where challenges are divided up into chunks, each tackled by a different team, with different goals and incentives.

To drive circularity, you need to capture sustainable opportunities that feed every step of the cycle and ladder up to meeting a common goal. A goal that is both tangible and stretchy, one that appeals to the board as well as the passionate amongst us. There’s nothing more reassuring than a clear, focused goal and tangible signs of success along the way. To get there, you are undoubtedly going to have some tough conversations with people out of your comfort zone. It’s amazing what bringing unlikely suspects together in a room can achieve.

So, how can you create an expert ecosystem that can deliver at speed, with agility and confidence? A fluid ecosystem that has a common goal, thrives on balanced input and constantly gauges implications at each segment of the cycle.

4. Head above vs. head below

Consumer attitudes are moving forward. Your business must move forward with them. The more visibly you do this, the better.

So when should you raise your head above the parapet to “do the right thing” that may initially be appreciated by the few vs. support the business as usual and appeal to the many?

This is crucial if you want to lead, not follow…

Bold leaders have set ambitious sustainable targets before working with their supply chain to determine how to actually achieve these goals (think M&S Plan A, for example). They believe their values are best for business and the next generation.

These ambitious targets create high demand for sustainable products. A ripple effect passes around the supply chain as suppliers see value in enhancing sales and reputation by meeting their customers’ sustainable demands.

We know tapping into demand drives innovation, just look at the number of ocean plastic initiatives. Brands need to translate their sustainable ambitions into something that propels them forward, rather than simply falling into line with new category norms.

So, what’s the cost of raising your head above the parapet vs. keeping it below? Put another way, what is the cost of not doing it?

5. Short-term demands vs. long-term survival

This action gap is defined by the short-term demands of the business today vs. the clear need for the business to prepare itself for the demands of future generations.

The harsh reality is that in a tough market, if a sustainability initiative adds cost, it is unlikely to progress. The more commercial initiative usually wins. Of course they do, so you need to turn sustainability into a competitive advantage… or create a competitive advantage that is also sustainable (realizing I made that sound far easier than it is!).

“Just like any other challenge, don’t approach sustainability in isolation and without the right team and tools for the job.”

Marketers’ assignments tend to change in 3-year cycles, so the challenge, or rather chance, is to create short-term wins that provide a stepping stone to your long-term goals…rather than benefits that fizzle out as the team changes.

Consider focused, rapid and agile ways to market that can satisfy the urgent whilst fuelling crucial investment in your future…

So, what does this mean for you?

Just like any other challenge, don’t approach sustainability in isolation and without the right team and tools for the job. What can you do easily now to start making a business case for sustainability? Do you have under-used assets? Do you have a partner that can unlock potential? Is there another service that your consumers / customers would appreciate?

But before you start, firmly set the business ambition in people’s minds. That way you’re greater than the sum of your parts.

…you may rightly ask of us: what does a consultancy like LPK have to say?

LPK works on many of the world’s leading brands whose products touch the lives of billions of people globally. We believe that people use brands to meet their inherent desires. Therefore, we are perfectly placed to integrate sustainability into a business challenge or design brief and on into people’s lives.

On the face of it, many of the challenges above are not new to us or many other innovators…or maybe even you? Starting with “why,” engaging a team of experts, myth-busting category perceptions, pipeline thinking and always, always making sure ideas are evaluated as being desirable, viable and feasible. These are the foundational requirements of winning innovation and design that we have been delivering for decades.

We have to do this together. Certainly not alone. We’ve resolved many tensions and overcome seemingly impossible barriers in the past. Why should this be any different?

Want to talk about sustainability strategies for your brand? Get in touch with me at ed.adamson@lpk.com.