06/19/2015 by Alison Klein
Okay, okay – I know it’s a bold headline but after reading Brand Thinking for our book club meeting, I
honestly think it’s true. In Brand Thinking, Debbie Millman collects a series of interviews investigating the art
and science of branding. Based on the principles the book establishes and consumers’ rapidly shifting views of
sustainability, I predict a major transformation of the brand landscape.
In this article, I’ll explain how I arrived at my [slightly] audacious headline and why it seems inevitable that sustainable
brands are destined to become the standard in the not-so-distant future.
Brands are symbols of our most basic beliefs
Some of the earliest examples of branding are flags used in battle to differentiate friend from foe, religious symbols, family crests and tribal tattoos.
By leveraging these symbols, people were able to succinctly communicate their beliefs and allegiances.
In one Brand Thinking interview, cultural critic Virginia Postrel describes how donning
certain clothing brands allows “you to imagine yourself transformed in some way.
You are projecting outward and using what an economist would call‘signaling’ – the process of telling the world something about yourself” (93). You’re also helping yourself to become the person you’re projecting.
In another interview, Malcom Gladwell expands this concept to include items other than clothing, arguing
that “our personalities are in part a function of the collection of objects, ideas and things that we surround ourselves with” (309). Together, Postrel and Gladwell suggest that when we choose brands, we are constructing, solidifying, assuming and projecting our own identities.
We use brands to form connections
According to branding expert Wally Olins, “branding is a profound manifestation of the human
condition. It is about belonging: belonging to a tribe, to a religion, to a family. Branding demonstrates that sense of belonging” (11).
Really, the logos that we choose to wear – or not to wear – are symbols of underlying beliefs.
Displaying them allows us to recognize and associate with others who share those beliefs.
For example, brand consultant Brian Collins explains that “there’s something different
when you’re on a basketball court with a Nike swoosh on it. It’s a different experience that goes beyond those particular players on that particular court on that particular day. It becomes part of a larger story” (79).
If you wear Nike sneakers, your narrative now coincides with others who wear Nike. You have something in common with Michael Jordan! You and Michael and anyone else wearing Nike are unified in espousing Nike’s values.
Before you chew me out for using Nike as an example, I suggest you brush up on exactly what the Nike brand means. Since the scandals surrounding its supply
chain in the late 90s, Nike has re-positioned itself as a brand committed to inspiring athletes and creating positive social and environmental outcomes.
Still don’t believe me? Nike created something called the Nike MSI (Material Sustainability Index for laymen) that measures the environmental impacts of
various materials. This index was one of a few key building blocks for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higgs Index, the gold standard of sustainability measurement for apparel and
footwear manufacturers. Nike also has specific sustainability goals and a robust measurement system in place, as evidenced by their highly detailed annual sustainability report.
Nike’s pivot toward sustainable values is a survival mechanism that other established brands will have to mimic if they want to continue to thrive in the market of tomorrow.
The mainstream is changing
If we really use brands to build our identities and connect with others, it follows that to succeed, a brand must
represent values consistent with consumers’ individual identities and in line with prevailing cultural
positions. In case you haven’t heard, prevailing cultural positions are changing.
There have to be a million and a half reports about how millennials’ consumption habits differ from those of
previous generations. For the purposes of my argument, the gist can be (more or less) summed up like this:
Sixty-one percent of consumers globally now say they are very concerned about environmental problems compared with 56% in 2012. This concern makes them more aware of the environmental and social consequences of their consumption habits. According to a 2014 study , 55% of global online consumers across 60 countries are willing to pay more for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.
People expressing concerns and acting on them are two different things, but this data suggests that if nothing
else, the majority of consumers are now aware of and sympathetic to environmental issues.
If the trend continues, an overwhelming majority of people will believe in the importance of sustainable initiatives.
For the trend to continue, both the public and private sectors need to remain vigilant in spreading awareness,
inventing sustainable alternatives and incentivizing people to use to them. When we hit a critical mass of
conscious consumers and conscious companies, others will have little choice but to pivot toward sustainability.
As in the Nike example above, we’ve already seen companies make this adjustment. As more companies pivot, consumers will become increasingly wary.
That’s a good thing – for every company that’s actually adjusting its operations to be more sustainable, there’s one that’s spouting sustaina-babble and doing very little (or even nothing at all).
I think that with time, robust certification programs, media coverage, the trend towards transparency and an
increasingly informed consumer base will oust these fakers. Consumers will want authentically sustainable
goods and services, and they’ll be able to tell the real deal from the BS.
We need building blocks consistent with our identities
If brands are symbols leveraged by individuals to construct identities and an increasing number of people identify themselves as concerned about
environmental and social justice, it will become increasingly imperative for brands to show that they, too, share these values.
Brands that do harm to the environment, depend on exploitative supply chains or in other ways eschew social responsibility will, through stasis, regress.
Sustainable alternatives on the market will force them to a substandard position and their lack of concern will be incongruent with a new worldwide
standard of decency.
Products from these ambivalent brands will have little traction because buying them will inhibit a person’s ability to construct an ethical identity as
defined by prevailing social norms. If B Corps, social enterprises, sustainable businesses and
other good-for-the-world businesses can successfully create a strong brand presence in the marketplace, then traditional brands will no longer create a
sense of belonging – they will create a sense of shame.
You might think that these assertions are dramatic. After all, while some of the items that we buy seem to do a lot of work in creating our identities,
many items don’t have the same power. For instance, I’ve never given much thought to someone’s preferred brand of chewing gum. In 35 years, will buying a
non-sustainable chewing gum obliterate my carefully crafted identity of “conscious consumer” and make me a pariah among more principled gum-chewers? It’s
hard to say for certain, but the themes introduced by the branding experts in Millman’s book seem to suggest that it’s certainly a possibility.
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