Big brands have the power to shift culture and influence behavior. But will big brands step up and show consumers the way to a better future? Or will they be left in the dust by grassroots brands?
As the Chinese curse goes, we live in interesting times. Climate change is disrupting our core belief in progress and unending bounty. It suddenly seems every purchase comes with guilt as an added feature.
That said, we still need and want stuff. No matter what Clay Shirky says about our transformation from a consumer to creative society, consuming is core to what we do.
The Vision Of Brand America
I had an interesting conversation with Marc Mathieu recently. Mathieu is Unilever's new senior VP of marketing. Prior to Unilever, he revitalized the Coke Happiness platform. He's a man who knows brand transformation.
Mathieu believes one of his big jobs at Unilever is to connect the company's impressive sustainability credentials to its well-loved brands. And he needs to start consumers on the path to conscious consumption. As he says, 'We need to infuse brands and marketing with enough sustainability to create a behavioral shift.'
Is it a big job? Sure. But he's convinced it will be far easier if brands provide a clear vision to a better future. To illustrate this point, he refers to the vision of brand America:
'When we first came to America from Europe, it was a dangerous, frightening place. But the early settlers had a vision of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This vision became a powerful brand that drove the direction of America's progress.' Once the vision was understood and embraced, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Can Big Brands Do It?
Mathieu acknowledges that it's easier for startup brands with sustainability in their DNA to create this vision. 'Often it's easier for new brands to embed an idea like this. They can completely embrace it as part of their agenda.'
He also points to ubiquitous concepts like farmer's markets as examples of brands that have been created on the grass roots level by people who yearn for a vision of a simpler life. 'These are not manufactured brands, they're brands people have invented to reassure themselves in times of complexity.'
Still, there are big brands that can lead. 'The Sunlight brand stands for everyday cleaning, certainly. But it has also improved the lives of countless people by bringing them health and hygiene. It has made a real difference in situations where unsanitary conditions could have terrible circumstances'.
As Mathieu points out, big brands can push the change and education agenda very effectively. 'It's easier to teach people through marketing to brush their teeth twice a day than it is to get their mom to teach them.'
Now, those brands need to become an engine for enabling sustainability. In Unilever's case, that means blending the company's Sustainable Living Plan into the DNA of its brands.
The Vision Unfolds
Mathieu is raising the curtain on his plan for Unilever this week at the Sustainable Brands conference.
- However, my conversation with him illuminated several key learnings that any brand manager could take to heart:
- People don't separate brand from company anymore: Gone are the days where big companies could exist at arm's length from their stable of brands. Thanks to the power of citizen journalism and digital media, companies are their brands.
- Brands can change behavior and cultural mores: One word. Apple.
A brand vision can be created by a brand, but can also come from the people: Companies need to drive the vision of their brands, especially if they want those brands to reflect their corporate sustainability initiatives. Otherwise, citizens will fill the void and create the grassroots vision for themselves.
This article first appeared in Fast Company and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. Marc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands. Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.