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

Last September, outdoor adventure apparel and equipment retailer, Kathmandu, turned heads by announcing it had become a certified B Corporation.

In doing so, the brand told the world it would balance purpose and profit and only make decisions that had a positive impact across its workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment.

For any organisation, B Corp certification is a bold step. But for a well-known brand such as Kathmandu, it raises the bar in terms of the purpose and standards of sustainability customers might expect from it.

Kathmandu is part of a growing cadre of organisations whose brands have become intrinsically linked to a sustainability message. That tight bonding is also demonstrated within the organisation, with one of the key personnel driving the B Corp certification being Kathmandu’s general manager for marketing and online,

Paul Stern.

Stern’s career is peppered with marketing roles at companies such as Kmart and Schweppes. But when Kathmandu first became a publicly listed company in late 2009, it was Stern who was tapped on the shoulder to pull together its sustainability strategy.

“Later on, I became responsible for marketing, and sustainability stayed within my area, because I looked at it from a company perspective,” Stern tells CMO.

A natural partnership

He is not the only CMO holding such dual responsibility. Founder of brand and sustainability agency Republic of Everyone, Ben Peacock, says it is a logical step for marketing and sustainability to be situated in the same team.

“The ultimate bastion of sustainability is customer preference, because what you are trying to do is lure in new customers and attach your current customers to your brand to have them buy more from you,” Peacock says. “So for some companies, and certainly consumer goods companies, this is the biggest opportunity they have been missing for quite a long time.”

Peacock says the importance of having a strong sustainability message is reflected in the success of many purpose-driven startups, such as Thank You and Who Gives A Crap, and the numerous organic brands that have come to market in the past decade. As a result, many established organisations working to retrofit a sustainability-based purpose into their brand, and taking actions such as changing formulation and packaging or bringing new sub-brands to market.

“As soon as things hit that level it is very wise for sustainability and marketing to sit hand-in-hand. Because what sustainability brings is a deep understanding of the issues, and what marketing brings is the ability to simplify those and choose the parts of the story that will be compelling to the customer,” Peacock says.

However, he warns ensuring the new purpose sticks in the minds of consumers takes more than just an eye-catching campaign, and is achieved through acts, not ads. Peacock says failing to commit to the new purpose over the long term is likely to lead to accusations of ‘green washing’ or ‘woke washing’, such as those levelled at Pepsi in 2017 when it created an ad campaign using Kendall Jenner that parodied the Black Lives Matter protests.

Nonetheless, Peacock says it is possible to inject a sustainability-based purpose into an existing organisation - if the leadership is willing to commit.

“The challenge is that the time it takes versus the impatience people have to get it there don’t necessarily match,” he says. “Unless sustainability is sponsored from the CEO, it never really gains traction within an organisation. It needs the CEO to put it on the mandate and then needs senior leaders to sponsor it at the next level.”

At Kathmandu, while sustainability might reside within marketing, Stern became aware very early on that his team could not take full responsibility for its enactment alone.

“I talked to people across the organisation and realised that a number of them had different views on what sustainability meant,” he explains. “We said it can’t be one person just doing the sustainability things and no one taking ownership. So we created what we called the ‘Dream Team’, which had a person in every function that had a responsibility and things they had to execute in their teams.

“Within the product team for instance, we have a dedicated CSR person who spends a lot of time with the suppliers and the factories we work with, making sure processes and policies are in place to ensure we have ethical partners.”

But perhaps the most forceful statement of Kathmandu’s sustainability-based purpose comes through its certification as a B Corp – an unusual step for a publicly listed company. This was also noted by Deloitte Digital when it awarded Kathmandu for Best Social Impact at its first Corporate Entrepreneur Awards in October 2019.

Stern cites a lot of positive feedback from investors, team members and customers regarding the certification, and says it will also assist the company’s global ambitions.

“We have recently launched Kathmandu in North America and B Corp has much greater awareness there,” he says. “I think it is only going to get bigger in Australia and New Zealand and Europe, and so over time we’ll see that being a B Corp is an expectation from our customer audience.”

Kathmandu’s brand manager for sponsorship, community and sustainability, Olivia Barclay, says the certification makes a clear statement that running a business along sustainable lines need not come at the expense of commercial returns.

“We were in the fortunate position where we already had been doing a lot of sustainability practices with the company, so the certification itself didn’t require us to make much fundamental change,” she says. “Now that we are certified there is an expectation that we will continue with the work we are doing.”

Since the certification announcement, Barclay says she has received great interest from other brands wanting to follow suit.

Up next: What it takes to truly build purpose and how marketers at Unilever, Ben & Jerry's, are leading the way

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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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