The power of brands to change the world, part 3

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This is the last in a series of three posts exploring the role of brands in creating positive change. The previous post explored the first two Ps of creating world-changing brands, power and permission, and we’ll focus this post on the 2 remaining Ps, perception and portfolio. To start at the beginning, part 1 can be found here.


If your brand isn’t perceived as sustainable, it would behoove you to start proving otherwise or else do a better job communicating your successes if you are operationally credible. Why? Sustainability is one of many attributes that comprise your reputation; having sufficient deposits in this brand-equity bank account is invaluable in the event of a reputation crisis. And on the positive side, it provides another reason for values-based customers to be loyal.

On that note, let’s tease apart credibility and perception:

  • Credibility is whether or not you actually deliver. While most customers assume credibility, that’s unfortunately not the case with influential non-customer stakeholders like NGOs and media.
  • Perception is what the market believes to be true about you. Proof is not required, but is essential if you want to change how your brand is perceived.

As mentioned in part 1, BrandLogic’s Sustainability IQ Matrix is a helpful framework for discussing credibility and perception of our two brand examples, Apple and Nike.

  • Apple continues to enjoy a tremendous amount of perception of (and permission for) sustainability. It’s consistently listed among the top sustainable brands among consumer polls, which implies a passionately loyal customer base that clearly cared about sustainability and wanted to believe the best about one of their favorite brands. Yet while Apple has been building a foundation to support that positive perception, it continues to stumble on issues like fair labor in China and its withdrawal (and subsequent rejoining) of the EPEAT certification standard. Karen Krosinsky of Truecost writes about Apple’s potential as a sustainability innovator, but to date it remains just that: potential. Apple only scores a 4.5 out of 10 on Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics.
  • Nike worked hard to restore its credibility after reputation-shattering missteps in its supply chain in the 1990s. Back then, perception and credibility were at an all-time low, but the company has made tremendous strides to become a recognized leader in sustainability regardless of sector. You’ll see in the BrandLogic matrix that Nike has much more credibility than perception; as discussed in the previous section on permission, it’s chosen to downplay its sustainability credentials among customers so as not to distract from its core brand attribute of performance. However, this doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.

Contrast Apple and Nike with IBM, which fundamentally shifted its entire corporate brand to promote a Better Planet. IBM has built the credibility and earned positive customer perceptions. IBM didn’t sit around waiting for customer permission either, although IT inherently has more permission than other sectors.

Lesson: If perception exceeds credibility, start building proof… fast. If credibility exceeds perception, understand your market (is there a segment who’s interested in sustainable products?) and your competition (is there a white-space opportunity?). If the answer is no to both, no worries. If the answer is yes, seriously consider stepping up to be a change-maker among a segment of your customer base in a way that aligns with your brand. Don’t stop doing the things they love you for; you’re a mass brand for a reason.


Here’s where it gets fun. As noted earlier, sustainability and your core brand promise do not need to be mutually exclusive. Let’s see how Nike handles it using our 5 Stages market map:

You’ll see that Nike’s corporate brand is moving into the Transformative zone and sitting firmly in “Green in a Supporting Role” – ie. sustainability is used as a supporting point for the brand, visible to those who care but not to those who don’t. This is a highly desirable aspirational position for most mainstream brands: Nike has built strong credibility and brand equity among non-customer stakeholders and is in a position to lead with customers if and when it chooses to do so. From this position, Nike can use a portfolio approach to dial up or down sustainability based on each product brand’s respective target markets without shifting the corporate brand (for more on sustainable portfolio options, click here.)

  • N7 is a cause brand for Native American and Aboriginal communities; the 7 is a reference to the Native American concept that “In every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the seventh generation.” It sits slightly higher than the corporate brand due to the social cause, although messaging still soft-pedals the environmental benefits of the product line.
  • Flyknit, on the other hand, is one of the most sustainable shoes on the market but you’d never know it unless you visited Nike’s corporate media section. Just a few references to decreased waste and lighter materials in general communications would trigger a sense of shared values among a very knowledgeable consumer, but wouldn’t be noticed by most.

I’d like to see one or two more products in the upper green zone, Nike. Ones that are strong on performance while also dialing up a bit more engagement with customers who share your values. Don’t be shy. We need your leadership in creating consumer awareness, preference and behavior change… done in a way that is in alignment with your current brand equities (for more on this, see the previous post).

In summary…

As we think about how brands can be world changers, one of the most important things they can do is affect consumer behavior. Unilever understands that “product in use” is the biggest contributor to its negative impacts, so the company developed the Five Levers for Change to begin moving the needle. Yet consumer behavior goes beyond recycling and hand washing; in fact, we need to drop the word “consumer” altogether. Patagonia encourages its customers to reduce consumption and think about repairing, reusing and recycling. A very different mindset indeed; one that is enjoyed more by private companies than public.

It also means providing options for those who want a choice that matches their values… for the ones who will wear your sustainable brand like a badge of honor, or for those who are on the fence but want to feel good about their purchases. It’s about engaging citizens in doing the right thing, like Marks & Spencer does in so many visible ways like Shwopping and Be the Start.

Yet if brands are waiting for the market to come to them, they’ll wait a long time. This is a call to the Nikes of the world – the brands who are doing good behind the scenes – to step forward, leading with their core brand promise but getting above the radar on sustainability with a segment of receptive customers. Let’s start thinking both/and, not either/or. This is also a call to the Apples of the world who are stingy with their brand power and permission… whose laser focus on aesthetics is like polishing the interior of the Titanic.

This is a call for brand leaders who stand for more than top-line revenue growth and product obsolescence. We need a reinvention of capitalism, and for that we need courageous brands that can show us what’s possible.

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