Last week, I posted a piece at The Huffington Post titled “Sustainability Leadership through Branding: A Woman and a Community of 50,000.” Due to the constraints of word counts, I had to truncate the piece. Below is the complete article in its entirely, a profile of KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder of the Sustainable Brands conference happening this week in San Diego.
The more time I spend studying how people act on their understanding of climate change, sustainable business practices and what can really be done to reverse trends that must be reversed, the more fascinated I am with the variety of approaches and ideas human beings are putting into play.
I recently interviewed a woman who believes that positive environmental changes can occur through the process of branding. Branding, as in corporate branding done by corporate marketers? Yes, branding, but we must understand how she defines branding first. That idea intrigued me when I heard of the upcoming Sustainable Brands (SB) conference in San Diego, founded by KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz.
What is a sustainable brand? KoAnn defines it as “A better brand that endures by respecting and delighting all stakeholders in both current and future generations.”
Two key words that jump out right away are “stakeholders” (not shareholders) and the word “future.” These words are the opposite of short-term, quarterly reporting behavior more common in today’s largest publicly-traded companies and brands.
For the definition of brand, KoAnn offers “First who you are, what you do, and how you do it, then how you talk about it.”
This order of things is very important.
“One thing that must happen to create a sustainable economy is a shift in how we deal with complex systems. For example, we have strived so much for efficiency but that ideal doesn’t address our global, sustainable needs. We must therefore create a new definition of brand. We need to get it to what we do and how before we ever talk about it.”
I completely get this. As a global marketing manager for a European company, I was once told to “develop our green marketing story for our portfolio.” I pushed back on that approach and insisted that we instead demonstrate to the market proof of our own environmental responsibility. I felt that going to market with green marketing messages to sell our products, before putting forth our story of how we were walking the walk, could easily undermine our credibility. The entire process took a long time, but apparently, according to KoAnn, that’s the norm.
I asked KoAnn for a future view of how sustainable branding will make a difference over time.
“I underestimate the amount of time things will take,” She replied. “The notion of embedding purpose into the heart of brand is where we’re going.”
She sees the need for a major shift in thinking in business leadership.
“It’s in our individual best interest to care about the interests of others,” she shares. “We’ve gotten away from our cultural values, with all the talk of competitive advantage. How we get to the desired result is what matters now.”
As a change management expert, she immediately offered her view of one of the greatest challenges to this necessary approach.
“Getting the brand managers to engage has been the most difficult task,” she reveals. “They’ve traditionally been measured only on sales, on getting consumers to desire what they want them to want and to buy.”
She points out that this is the exact opposite of what Steve Jobs did as an innovator. He didn’t give consumers what they wanted; he created products they never knew could exist!
This reminded me of an insightful article published at GreenBiz.com that succinctly describes the disconnect happening inside many organizations. Titled “Is there a Disconnect in Your Green Company?” it was written by environmental entrepreneur Dennis Salazar, President of Chicago-based Salazar Packaging.
So given the many organizational disconnects, what’s the solution? The answer came when I asked KoAnn to name the most important accomplishment resulting from the SB conference she founded.
“We have been able to get big brands to create cross functional teams to expand the conversation into a multi-stakeholder conversation,” she replied.
One approach she cites is the intentional work to get innovators together with big brand companies. This change management guru is uniquely equipped to positively impact the planet by injecting innovative thinking into changing the status quo behavior of some of the globe’s largest brands.
Seeking an example of this innovation, I spoke with Leilani Latimer, Director Global Sustainability Initiatives for travel technology company Sabre Holdings. She describes her organization as, “We touch everybody that has anything to do with travel in any form in some way.”
Leilani has attended three of KoAnn’s SB conferences, sometimes with colleagues from different business units. She spoke of the many valuable ideas she and her colleagues took away each time. She stressed how having shared that creative foundation led to brainstorming ideas that were implemented as part of sustainability initiatives across multiple business units. One such example was a game starring the Travelocity gnome during Earth Week. The game made participating in a sustainability initiative fun for consumers, while highlighting the real operational improvements at New York City’s greenest hotels. She also talked of the “co-creation” process she witnesses before during and after the event, something she doesn’t find elsewhere.
“There are no prima donnas there,” Leilani stated. “The speakers and panelists are really part of the community. They stick around after the conference so the conversation and co-creation can continue. People who come to this conference truly want to make sure they’re serving customers in a long-lasting and meaningful way, for their customers and for the environment.”
So what results from these multi-stakeholder conversations?
“We have helped people charged with environmental duties inside organizations to articulate the value proposition of making necessary operational changes,” KoAnn shares.
This is an incredibly important point. KoAnn is demonstrating why the move toward sustainable business practices must happen from the inside out. It’s the opposite of the company whose management doesn’t understand that point; they unfortunately begins their so-called green marketing campaign by attempting to persuade consumers to buy their products. When these claims prove false or when consumers doubt the company really is taking care of the environment, that’s when the brand can be damaged.
Finally, drawing from my own experience, I asked KoAnn if she was aware of authentically responsible, positive behavior practiced by organizations that is not well known by the general public.
“Companies make two big mistakes: saying things that aren’t true and not saying things that are true,” she states. “We’re helping them to be authentic, to say the good truth.”
She spoke of organizations making important product reformulation, packaging, supply chain and logistics improvements, changes that truly matter and minimize negative environmental impacts, positive changes that somehow don’t make it into their marketing story. She specifically mentioned Caesar’s Entertainment, the parent company of Harrah’s hotels and casinos. In Las Vegas, their hotel staff diligently practices the 4 Rs by sorting the garbage behind the hotel, to minimize the landfill-bound waste. Yet, they don’t tell the front office they’re doing it. None of their customers know about this zero-waste-to-landfill practice happening every day.
“Management has chosen to not tell their customers because they don’t want to guilt them into thinking they should also do this.”
That decision says a lot more about the consuming public than it does about the organization, but therein lays the complexity of KoAnn’s work. Her work with her community focuses on figuring out how to get consumers and brands on the same side. She knows businesses can get to a point where they are minimizing their negative impacts on the environment while creating value for their many stakeholders. She and her team, and the thousands who participate in the SB conference and community, are working the tough change management processes from the inside. They’re helping the globe’s biggest brands learn and practice the new branding, in the right order: Who, what, how first; then and only then do you begin your green marketing campaign with credibility.
The rest is our responsibility as consumers. We must demand real accountability, real behavioral changes and real operational changes from our favorite brands. We must reward those who deliver the changes needed to damage our planetary home less. We must punish those who attempt to achieve sales benefits without doing the work inside the organization first. Are we are intelligent enough to learn the difference?