While many of us live out our sheltered lives, the rest of our country and world remains trapped in destructive cycles: poverty, climate change, poor health, declining education, habitat destruction, toxic waste… the list goes on. Companies play a huge role in both the problems and the solutions; they’ve been making progress in CSR and sustainability, but it’s been largely through behind-the-scenes efforts to mitigate risk or reduce costs. Social issues are most frequently addressed through philanthropy that’s disconnected from the core business. The big opportunity is to align CSR and sustainability with competitive advantage; ie. creating shared value. And now we’re talking front-of-the-house activities like products, services, and new business models. In other words, we’re talking about brands.

Before we get much farther, let’s get on the same page with the definition of brand. I’ve always defined an effective brand as “a promise delivered.” It’s a believable, differentiated promise of an experience that stakeholders want, and it’s not just hype. It’s integrated and manifested through every touchpoint. The best brands are coherent: they walk their talk, fully aligned around a singular idea. Two good examples of this are Apple and Nike.

  • Apple demonstrates “Think Different” in every aspect of its brand, from product design and store design to the innovative iTunes ecosystem that disrupted the music business. It’s an employee recruitment filter and a magnet for likeminded customers.
  • Nike’s mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world,” which it lives out to such an extent that Fast Company declared it the most innovative company of 2013. And it’s been delivering on the inspiration component (“Just Do It”) for decades.

Both of these brands have the power and permission to make lasting positive impact on the social and environmental issues of our day, but only one of them is actually doing it (and still has plenty of room to do more). One of them has expanded their sphere of coherence beyond the traditional corporate boundaries to include a variety of stakeholders and a host of unlikely partners. It’s leveraging its brand power in innovation to transform its business, products and business model. And it’s open sourcing design standards and best practices to help other industries transform as well.

We use the 5 Stages model of sustainable brand-building to evaluate a brand’s and its competitors’ position from Laggard (score of 1) to Transformative (score of 5). The horizontal axis on the chart below is the average score of 12 internal credibility dimensions (including management/strategy, operations, and industry leadership.) The vertical axis is the average score of 7 market-facing dimensions including brand portfolio, positioning, customer experience and communications. The goal is to “walk more than you talk”… to build internal credibility before dialing up market-facing efforts.

This is a back-of-the-napkin audit of Nike and Apple based on available online information. You can see that Nike is bordering on Transformative in its operational integrity (ie. behind-the-scenes credibility), meaning that it’s going well beyond the usual aspiration to integrate sustainability into its business… its goal is to fundamentally transform the apparel industry. Yet it’s staying well under the “green in a starring role” bar externally. Sustainability is visible through its Better World initiative and The Girl Effect, but you won’t easily find it as an everyday customer if you’re not hunting for it. And for Nike, that’s by design.

Apple, by contrast, has built enough credibility to show up slightly more visibly to the market, but it has stepped back from active promotion of its EPEAT-certified lineup (after getting into a lot of hot water about prioritizing design over the environment.) Disappointing, as I used to point to Apple as a rare example in the computer space that was proudly communicating its sustainable line of laptops. While the company has made progress since starting its efforts in 2005, it still has a long way to go and we see no indication that it’s a high priority for management.

Our 5 Stages framework is different, by the way, than BrandLogic’s Sustainability IQ Matrix that compares credibility versus market perception. Credibility in our model is defined relative to what could be done to transform markets and industries using sustainability, while BrandLogic is based on what is currently being done relative to other businesses using GRI (which is why I have an issue with GRI…. everyone could be lagging but the relative leaders are lauded as sustainable.) Likewise, the market-facing axis incorporates customer perceptions as just one of several other factors, and is more a reflection of strategic brand integration rather than actual market visibility. The BrandLogic model is very useful (and we’ll look at it in detail later)… just different.

In the next two posts, we’ll explore the four P’s of sustainable world-changing brands – power, permission, perception and portfolio – and see how CMOs and brand managers can build positive brand equity and change the world through sustainability while staying true to the brand’s essence and mission. Sound like a tall order? Read on.

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