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BEST PRACTICE: How sustainability leaders stay ahead through marketing and communication

Sustainable business (environmental and social responsibility) is shifting from a focus on companies’ operations to their marketplace. This means the benefits go beyond just cost savings, legislative compliance and risk management to sustainability helping build brands, drive innovation and growth. Pioneering B2B brands like GE and Du Pont, 3M and DSM know this and started to act, in what green guru Jonathon Porritt calls the ‘indisputable leadership’ on sustainability. This new type of sustainability leadership will increasingly be a job for marketers, but how do you manage through this transition and link sustainability to brand marketing and communications?


To answer this, we conducted a benchmark study of how global sustainability leaders link their performance to brand and communications. Our primary interest was to understand what constitutes what we term ‘sustainable brand leadership’, rather than simply sustainable business leadership, which is already quite well understood. Here we list several finding and conclusions as ‘Five Principles for B2B Sustainable Brand Leadership’; illustrated with examples, to help B2B brands get more from their sustainability strategy.


  1. 1.     Brand their programmess and approach to sustainability


Sustainable brand leaders communicate their sustainability strategy, programmes and approach as they would a brand, through a compelling, unique story. What used to be an EHS (Environment, Health and Safety) or community programme now feature names, identities and architectures and many other elements of branding. The most comprehensive of these is arguably GE’s Ecomagination, linking their internal and external environmental ambitions the ‘Imagination at Work’ slogan. Ecomagination is carefully positioned so sustainability is integrated with the brand and business and also about innovation and growth. Others have followed suit. Johnson Building Controls have branded their programme, focussed on energy efficient building technology for facilities management, as Efficiency Now. A sustainable brand leader will have a clear, compelling and coherent sustainability story told through the brand.


  1. 2.     Engage employees extensively


All great brands work well internally and sustainable brand leaders take their employees on their sustainability journey too. Swiss Re encourages employees to take green behaviour beyond just the workplace through its COyou2 program in which they offer a 5,000 CHF grant for employees to invest in carbon reduction technology in their everyday lives. This innovative extension to the Swiss Re climate change strategy, used by over 2,000 employees mostly for public transport or hybrid cars to date, sees employees taking sustainability home.


  1. 3.     Solve customers problems; deliver benefits


Question: do you know your customers’ sustainability priorities or targets? Sustainable brand leaders do and help customers overcome their big environmental and social problems. Knowing the confusion its customers face with the growing number of product eco-labels (300 at last count, including the EU eco-flower, the Nordic Swan, A-F grade energy labelling, FSC label for good forestry management, recycled material labels, etc) BASF produced a helpful eco-label database for its customers to navigate through this complexity. Du Pont has a 2015 sustainability goal for $2bn in revenues from products that save customers carbon emissions, cleverly linking up a financial target internally with customer priorities externally. Sustainable brand leaders have customers’ sustainability challenges and benefits at their heart.


  1. 4.     Deliver sustainability through products and services


Sustainable business used to be about the ‘direct’ impacts of a company’s operations or offices, but leaders now deliver it through their core product and service offers. Software giant SAP has spotted the opportunities from helping its clients collect, manage and report sustainability data and has a growing suite of sustainability software tools to support this. Critically these are aligned to existing SAP software, run as standard by most Fortune 500 companies. Legal and General Property recently launched Green Leases, in which property contracts specify the use of environmental contractors and the upholding of certain environmental standards like recycling and energy efficiency throughout a buildings lease and occupancy. These are legally binding and can result in contract termination if unfulfilled. Sustainable brand leaders don’t just do sustainability themselves internally, but also offer sustainable products and services.


  1. 5.     Act at the cutting-edge of the debate


New issues constantly emerge from the sustainability debate. Over the years it was climate change, followed recently by issues like water scarcity and food security, and sustainable brand leaders track and act at the cutting-edge of these themes. In response to concerns about the high carbon footprint of red-meat based diets, food services provider Sodexo offers a ‘Meat-Less Monday’ option for its hospital, government and public sector clients to helping them manage and reduce the impacts of the food they serve. Also, the increasing population trend towards urbanisation means tackling the sustainability challenges that come with this at the level of the city, not the individual. Thus Siemens, GE and Philips have all developed major Sustainable Cities programmes around these opportunities. Sustainable brand leaders spot emerging sustainability themes early and act quickly.


Developing a sustainability strategy to manage your environmental and social impacts is a must for all B2B brands today. But leveraging the opportunities is a different challenge. We’re convinced that using brand marketing and communication skills is a critical part of any successful sustainability strategy. By using our five principles you could be the next sustainable brand leader.


Co-written by Joe Hale and Chris Sherwin at Dragon Rouge