Why sustainability and marketing are a match made in heaven

We explore the growing interest in sustainability and purpose across brands and how marketers can take the lead

Purpose building

It is a trend also witnessed by former Unilever general manager and marketing director, Paul Connell. And it’s now something he’s working to help foster across more and more organisations as founder of consulting firm, Build on Purpose.

“B Corp is starting to be recognised not as a hipster movement but as governance system that helps you understand across every part of your business what a better company looks like and how it behaves,” he says.

While much of the interest in certification is coming from marketing, Connell says it is important sustainability not been seen as a marketing initiative alone.

“The ultimate goal is to get your purpose to be adopted right at the centre of the corporate strategy and to stop seeing corporate and brand as different things,” Connell says. “In this day and age, every single decision you make in a company is your brand, and you do that in a way that means everyone can feel they can be a part of it. Because there is no point in having a great brand purpose strategy if you haven’t engaged your supply chain team, for instance.”

It is a perspective also well understood at Unilever-owned ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry’s, which long ago placed social consciousness at the core of its business strategy.

“Ben and Jerry’s exists for its social mission, not the other way around,” says the company’s impact and activism manager for A/NZ, Stephanie Curley. “Social mission is intrinsic to our brand. It’s who we are, it is why we are in business. It is who we have been since we started in the 1970s.”

The company has a history of being unafraid to speak out about the things that matter to it – a stance has at times seen it attract the ire of those who don’t share its views. That includes Queensland Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection, Andrew Powell, who in 2014 called for a boycott of Ben & Jerry’s due to its support for a campaign against dredging and dumping near the Great Barrier Reef.

While having a strong social purpose serves to connect the company to its consumers, Curley says it is the long history behind that purpose enabling it to work so effectively in the minds of consumers.

“People are attracted to our brand because they share our values,” she says. “Because we have such a long heritage of doing it for nearly 40 years, we have the social licence to be there. So when we come out and talk about controversial things it is not seen as something that is greenwashing or just seeking attention, it is something that people know we are genuine about”

But while Ben & Jerry’s may be able to control its own actions, it remains just one part of a broader supply chain. Curley says the company works hard to ensure its upstream and downstream partners align to similar principles. One step has been investing in a ‘Caring dairy’ program that provides farmers with a mechanism for evaluating, implementing and continuously improving sustainable agricultural practices on their farms. She says Ben & Jerry’s will always purchase Fair Trade certified produce where possible.

“If there are thing in your supply chain or within your wider business that don’t fit with where you would like to be, be open about that,” Curley says. “That transparency is what people are looking for. And if you can offer that, you are going to come across as a much more genuine business and people are going to respond a lot more positively.”

While this activity minimises the risks to the company’s reputation, it also drives sustainability-led actions out to a broader pool of organisations. In turn, this allows the company to continue to take a public stance on issues that matter to it.

“The things we do we don’t do for business sake - we do them because it is part or who we are and we genuinely feel it is the right thing to do,” Curley says. “For us, it is not just about talking about social activism or talking about social change. We live it really from the inside all the way out.

“So it is really hard for us to say ‘this is brand, and this is sustainability’ - it is really integral to who we are.”

Read more on how brands are approaching purpose:

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