Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
Building a sustainable brand with purpose can be a complex and formidable task.
One brand that has succeeded and is on a fast growth trajectory as a result is New Zealand-based household cleaning and bodycare brand, ecostore, which has maintained a strong sustainable vision from its beginnings in 1993. The brand is now stocked in more than 2000 Australian stores and has an annual turnover of $33 million.
ecostore's co-founder and CEO, Malcolm Rands, told CMO authenticity is the key to growing a purpose-led brand and disrupt a highly competitive marketplace.
Rands has had a focus on sustainable life since the mid-1980s, when he pioneered a small permaculture eco-village. By the time he started the ecostore business with his wife in 1993, he’d already spent eight years living the sustainable life.
“It just became what I did and so normal, I wondered why everyone wasn’t doing the same,” he said. “The concept of the ecostore was something we wanted and needed for our own family, and from then on in, it was about sharing it with the world.”
Rands positioned ecostore as one of the world’s first purpose-led brands that sought to disrupt the traditional capitalism model.
“When I was working in the eco-village, I was also working for a not-for-profit and we wanted to change the world in all sorts of wonderful ways,” he said. “The problem I had dealing with not-for-profit organisations was committees. Eighty per cent of the time, you’re raising money just to pay for your own salary, let alone do anything else.
“So I thought, let’s see if I can disrupt and find a new way of funding a not-for-profit organisation. Right from the beginning, we set up this idea that you have a business that is completely capitalist but can make a difference in the best possible way – that is deeply embedded in ethics, which can also access money and profits so a percentage goes to fund a foundation.”
Rands said the culture you need in a business led by purpose is completely different from the culture you need for a not-for-profit. The mistake many people make it they try to mix them up.
“Businesses that try to be not-for-profit as well tend to fall into the trap of being too aggressive or they don’t foster the right culture,” he claimed. “Then you get not-for-profits that are too business-like and they’re hopeless – and usually lose lots of money.”
With ecostore, a percentage of the money raised through sales goes towards its foundation, Fairground.
“Everyone who works at ecostore can see what a wonderful thing is happening. At the same time, when Fairground does something wonderful, it gets free publicity,” Rands said.
Transparency and authenticity
Ecostore uses transparency as a point of difference, something Rands suggested multinationals cannot compete with.
“What we do with our customers is we welcome them to visit our website, where you can dig incredibly deep, right down to every single ingredient, right through to the third-party verified health impact of everything we use. None of our competitors can do that,” he claimed.
A priority right at the beginning of the ecostore journey was to avoid chemicals in household liquids, which Rands alleged are not just poisoning the environment, but also poisoning people.
“Since the very beginning, we’ve been paranoid about what ends up on people’s skin,” he said. “So much so, we reject 50 per cent of the natural eco-chemicals because we are so concerned about your health. Health is a priority for us over and beyond the ecostore philosophy. Health is also very motivating – and that can be the point of difference you have from the multinationals.
“Our ethics are our defence mechanism. Because as soon as we start cutting corners, we become a ‘me too’ and then our competitors will be able to easily take us down – we’ll just be the same as them.”
Leading with real customer stories
When it comes to brand leadership, Rands said coming from a real place with stories about real people is a massive strength, and one that’s delivering sustainable growth for the brand.
“Do not just rely on facts like the ‘10 bullet points about my business,' that’s just more blah blah blah info,” he said. “The world is awash with facts. What you need to get across is the narratives, the stories, what makes you special, what makes you belong there, what your vision is, why you’re there – that’s the stuff people at up rather than facts and figures, which are boring.
“The world is becoming incredibly commoditised. Let’s take dishwashing liquid as an example: If you line them all up , they all work as well as each other and they all cost pretty much the same. So when you’re coming to make a decision as to which one to buy, why would you buy one with dirty habits from some anonymous corporation when you can buy a local one that costs the same and works as well - plus you can relate to the customer stories and brand ethic?”
For younger brands with more limited budgets, Rands suggested working with your existing customer tribe and get them to help you share stories on social media.
“Start networking and reach out and just be patient – if your brand is strong enough and the quality is there, it will get there in the end,” he concluded. “There is no silver bullet. The only silver bullet is authenticity and quality will come through in the end.”
Rands spoke to CMO ahead of the Sustainable Brands 2016 event to be held in Sydney later this month.