Sustainable Brands (Whatever That Means?)

Jack Daniels

After struggling for a month or so to find topics that would interest both you and me, I am swamped with possibilities and will get to them as quickly as I can. For starters, this headline really intrigued me: “50 Fastest Growing Brands Serve a ‘Higher Purpose.’” I found this on a blog run by “Sustainable Brands,” which according to their website is, “a learning, collaboration, and commerce community of over 50,000 sustainable business leaders from around the globe.”

I spent some time going through their web pages which tell a story I will write about another time, but I want to focus on the headlined story, above. First, the definition, sustainable brand: “a better brand that endures by respecting and delighting all stakeholders in both current and future generations,” is needed to provide context to this post. It’s hard for me to accept that a “brand” can do anything, certainly not “respect” anybody. Only people can respect; it is a fundamental human attitude. Products and services can and do produce delight, but the brand is nothing but a metaphor. Maybe that’s why I usually suspect the words of marketeers who try to convince customers in words that what they buy is delighting them, for example. Judging from the violence and dumbing down I see in so many of the advertisements I am compelled to watch because they are embedded everywhere i look and listen, I see little respect for the stakeholders.

So, now to the story. Here’s the lede: “New research on the world’s 50 fastest growing brands found a cause-and-effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance.”

Through case studies, GROW demonstrates how brand ideals aren’t simply about altruism or corporate social responsibility but a fundamental human value that is authentic to the brand and ultimately a driver for extraordinary growth. In fact, Millward Brown Optimor’s analysis discovered that those who centered their businesses on ideals had a growth rate triple that of competitors in their categories.

There is not enough information to determine whether this claim is based solely on a correlation, or has additional research to prove a cause-effect relationship. But on with the story. Here are the five ideals:

  • Eliciting Joy: Activating experiences of happiness, wonder, and limitless possibility
  • Enabling Connection: Enhancing the ability of people to connect with each other and the world in meaningful ways
  • Inspiring Exploration: Helping people explore new horizons and new experiences
  • Evoking Pride: Giving people increased confidence, strength, security, and vitality
  • Impacting Society: Affecting society broadly, from challenging the status quo to redefining categories

Some of these fit into the categories of care that are so central to what I call sustainability-as-flourishing, and on this account I begin to pay attention. Erich Fromm said, “Joy is the glow that accompanies Being.” The test of the first item in the list is, then, do these brands create Being, or are they producing ephemeral sensations? I may be very jaded, but would Aquarel, a purveyor of bottled water, create joy. Maybe the brand does through the magic of language and image, but that’s just the point: can a bottle of water really make one joyful? Slaking one’s thirst produces relief, but joy; I wonder? In a few paragraphs, I will list more of the winners, and you can make up your own minds. Authenticity is a critical element in Being. The joy that comes along, as Fromm said, has to be one’s own, not created by an external context—metaphorically a voice instilling an experience from the outside—which is exactly what branding produces.

“Connection” is certainly a critical context for care. It does little itself, but provides a means for a caring actor to produce an effect on the intended recipient, whether a person or some non-human entity. But except for a few of the companies that produce devices that are designed for that purpose, I could not find many where this feature would be part of the goods. Connecting with others who are recognized as living with the same brand may induce a sense of solidarity, but I doubt if the experience comes close to being authentic. Does Hermes create connection? Maybe with others flitting across an airport concourse, but this hardly has anything to do with sustainability.

Next, “invoking exploration.” This sound great; what could be better than new horizons, but not if the present world isn’t being taken care of. With few exceptions, the companies in the list sell exclusively or nearly so to the affluent and elite. New horizons have an special appeal to this affluent segment of society who have enough disposable income to keep looking for the next new thing. Hennessy, the maker of cognac, might qualify here in that excessive imbibing of a smooth VSOP brandy can take the drinker out of the world, but leave a bad taste in the morning.

“Evoking pride” comes next. This is a poor choice of words, it seems to me, but they define it so as to avoid the negative sense that prideful frequently brings. Here it means creating “confidence, strength, security, and vitality.” The brand messages, no doubt, are effective in conveying these desired qualities, but can Red Bull, the energy drink, really do this? Finally, there is “impacting society.” I would agree that changing the status quo is essential if sustainability is going to even peek at us, but, come on, what kind of changes are those buying Johnny Walker or a Mercedes-Benz thinking about.

That’s enough from me. Here are the 50: Accenture, management and enterprise consulting services; Airtel, mobile communications; Amazon.com, e-commerce; Apple, personal computing technology and mobile devices; Aquarel, bottled water; BlackBerry, mobile communications; Calvin Klein, luxury apparel and accessories; Chipotle, fast food; Coca-Cola, soft drinks; Diesel, youth- targeted fashion apparel and accessories; Discovery Communications, media; Dove, personal care; Emirates, air travel; FedEx, delivery services; Google, Internet information; Heineken, beer; Hennessy, spirits; Hermès, luxury apparel and leather goods; HP, information technology products and services; Hugo Boss, luxury apparel and accessories; IBM, information technology products and services; Innocent, food and beverages; Jack Daniel’s, spirits; Johnnie Walker, spirits; L’Occitane, personal care; Lindt, chocolate; Louis Vuitton, luxury apparel and leather goods; MasterCard, electronic payments; Mercedes-Benz, automobiles; Method, household cleaners and personal care; Moët & Chandon, champagne; Natura, personal care; Pampers, baby care; Petrobras, energy; Rakuten Ichiba, e-commerce; Red Bull, energy drinks; Royal Canin, pet food; Samsung, electronics; Sedmoy Kontinent (“Seventh Continent”), retail grocery; Sensodyne, oral care; Seventh Generation, household cleaners and personal care; Snow, beer; Starbucks, coffee and fast food retailer; Stonyfield Farm, organic dairy products; Tsingtao, beer; Vente-Privee.com, e-commerce; Visa, electronic payments; Wegmans, retail grocery; Zappos, e-commerce; Zara, affordable apparel.

You decide if they come close to the ideals. If not, their performance, as leading growth and success, can come only by the cleverness of the brand message. This alone attests to the inauthenticity of the system of [sustainable] branding in the first place. We are led to believe we are joyful, explorative, and so on by these powerful voices. The real measure of an set of ideals must come from inside and in action if Being is to come forth. And without Being, there can be no flourishing. And without flourishing, there can be no sustainability.

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1 Comments

David M. Carter said:

Thought provoking subject, John.

What this case study "research" suggests falls squarely in the realm of extrinsic values. Human emotions, such as joy and pride, can be interpreted as having an extrinsic orientation. They can also be interpreted, more authentically, as having an intrinsic orientation. Unfortunately, our cultural values have become so synonymous with extrinsically motivated values, that even our "researchers" miss the distinction between authentic and contrived emotional responses. Certainly, the average citizen (aka, consumer) misses this distinction. I'm fearful that we have reached the point in our capitalistic culture that we have lost touch with the definitions of higher purpose emotions as described by Fromm.

What's important to note is that researchers who focus on the study of extrinisic and intrinsic values find time and time again that an extrinisc value orientation puts downward pressure on human well-being, and an intrinsic orientation improves well-being. The most crucial finding of this research (see Self Determination Theory) is that there is a risk that too much of a focus extrinsically (just as the brands listed inspire) causes people to lose touch with their intrinic value systems. This can lead to feelings of loss, disorientation, and anomie. I can drink Jack out of my Hermes flask while I surf my iPhone, but I can't figure out what I want to do with my life...