The story goes that in a recent conversation with a large multinational client, yet again, at the mention of the S word, the brand people did everything from polite wincing to effectively spitting their coffee across the room.
Now to be fair, it was mentioned not in splendid isolation, elevated as some false god, the hero of the day, but in context to Shared Value and Social Brand, seen as a set of three pillars on which to build a more resilient, inclusive and adaptive Brand Story.
So, no Sustainable evangelism: just an eye to rigour and a wish to build something of substance; built to absorb whatever turbulence and volatility our fluid and accelerating world might throw at it without losing its shape.
Even though there is no intention to use the S word in the everyday brand world, we do have to use the S word in some rooms and in some circumstances – and hope that the brand people will not respond like someone just broke wind in the halls of the Brand Almighty.
Because, whether brand people like it (or understand it) or not, currently Sustainability is the corporate, operational and consulting nom de jour to describe a set of operational, systemic and social actions, processes and behaviours which deliver positive impacts, economies and efficiencies which in turn create enormous sources of value.
They construct the proofs of quality and responsibility that any self respecting brand story should leap to embrace.
It’s these very actions that will keep a brand still punting its wares long into the future.
They are what underwrite a brand’s ability to exist with integrity and confidence in a world of heavy and public scrutiny.
The scrutiny is not something to be ignored – the turbulence and volatility generated by the average angry consumer or activist is a sight to behold.
The problem for the average brand person still is the language that comes with these initiatives and actions.
For example, I don’t think the idea of creating a Sustainable Living Plan is going to have anyone in the pub punching the air, popping on some ‘lippy’, kicking up their heels and rushing into the street to evangelise to the kids at the bus stop drinking offer-price WKD.
Unliever have done extraordinary things to move the sustainability agenda forwards and the courage of the Exec and their leading light is both staggering and audacious.
But the Sustainability community is still speaking in tongues as far as most people’s grannie is concerned.
The complexity of detail and systemic language – what the engineers and scientists might call the language of sustainability truths – is not exactly the kind that makes for a breezy chat with a mate over some Big D nuts and a pint of lager top.
So a huge amount of every day people powered interpretation is needed. But it must be based upon the full picture, which means we have to dive into the choppy seas of complexity before we can possibly pop up the other side, gasping for breath sporting a stupendous thong of Simplicity ready for the brand beach.
Just setting Sustainability aside as ‘inappropriate’ or ‘irrelevant’ is at best lazy and at worst just cowardice.
When considering what makes a resilient brand story, we can’t honestly say that it’s ever acceptable to just shelve all of this stuff because we don’t like the way it speaks.
If we remove, ignore or ‘duck’ anything to do with S word, the danger is that we remove the need to account for its value at all in the architecture and truths of the brand story.
For my own part, I have stated very clearly that I never want to hear S language used in everyday parlance – especially that designed to try and convince any normal human being to embrace a more enduring lifestyle.
But it must be woven into the foundational layers of the story we tell them; or we’re just spoofing the conversation.
The Brand Story must capture the value the operational and systemic innovations and improvements the Sustainability initiatives create.
So were to start? At the bottom is as good a place as any.
Every story of any substance and meaning has a ladder of detail, information, meaning and context: actors and agents woven together with threads of insight and converging lines of circumstance, action, feeling and consequence.
The bottom rung creates the dense, immutable foundation of the story, the top rung its clearest and most uncluttered vantage point.
That most people tend to read from the vantage point of the top rung isn’t a reason to bin the rest of them though.
If you did, the ladder would weaken and eventually fall apart. It would also prove impossible to climb.
We’ve all read a story where we become aware at some point of the absence of some of the lower rungs – the character feels a little ‘thin’, some of the detail feels over stated or under represented: the story loses energy at some points: it is confused or its reasoning fails or falters, or simply that the narrative thread runs out of steam.
The Complexity invested in those bottom rungs is what allows the top rung to remain both so strong and so effortlessly simple.
We simply cannot get to the simple vantage point of the top rung without them.
Setting aside all the slightly uncomfortable detail and complexity of the sustainable world when considering writing our shiny brand story is simply foolish.
So my issue with the brand people (whom I understand entirely, as I am one myself) is not with their dislike of anything that cannot be said in a simple everyday language.
My concern is this: in their rush to remove any explicit trace of strategic and systemic Sustainability thinking & doing and its accompanying language from their narrative world, they inadvertently remove the need to account for any of it at all.
And that is bad.
Because in trying to shape a brand story, its truths, reasons to believe and its dynamic rhythm, everything must be considered. This is the juncture when the chinks in its armour, its weak points and its fragile links over time are exposed.
If you are supposedly building a resilient brand story that can account for them; that can reengineer the weak spots, inspire every stakeholder and innovate around the real differences, you need to uncover the ugly first.
A critical part of developing a more resilient brand story lies in rigorously interrogating the brand’s resilient nature – its systemic, cultural and social integrity, inclusiveness and adaptability.
Without this, simplicity is an illusion and potentially an expensive one.
While everything’s dandy in your brand world and there are no NGOs, competitors or horror of horrors, customer’s or consumers taking pot shots at you, you’re laughing.
Life is simple. Create great campaigns. Don’t sweat the ugly stuff. No ones interested.
Until they suddenly get interested.
Your supply chain messes up. A Labour Rights issue. Another dead orangutan. Your pre-packed beef meat lasagna turns out the be horse-shit.
Usually at this point, you call Corporate Affairs, drop off the file, and hope it’ll be OK in the end.
The one thing that the brand people seem not to have noticed is that they are in a rare position – and if they chose to plumb the complexity of all that ‘S’ stuff, they could create a far more resilient brand story and generate value for the business far far beyond the usual horizons of the CMO and Brand Director.
The gift: that they view the world through brand eyes and sensibilities. If they view the operational and systemic nature of the business through the same lens, they may well highlight a flaw in the model of the business that may not have occurred to anyone else – one that could cause expensive or irreparable damage to the brand.
There is an economic benefit to this: if you account for the sustainability truths and ambitions of the business that delivers the brand, you are far more likely to have spotted the trip wires.
Given that the reflex position currently seems to be “why would I invest brand budgets in making this stuff a priority when it isn’t for my consumer? – it is sometimes worth doing a quick sum for fun. Try assessing how much money a business or brand has invested in Corporate PR reactions hastily and expensively constructed to mitigate damage to reputation because they missed something that hindsight cruelly points to a quite glaringly obvious.
Two examples – Foxconn & Apple. Palm Oil & Dove.
If the architects of the both the Apple and the Dove brand stories had been compelled to include, scrutinize and account for every operational, systemic and social dimension of the brand, they would have realized that, in Apple’s case, Labour Abuses (however distant) don’t sit well on the consciences of the Millennials and Gen Xers you are inspiring to Go Create. Nothing dries up the creative juices faster than feeling that you are pouring them into a machine that sanctions labour tyrannies and tries to cover them up when they’re busted.
They would also have notices that The Real Beauty Campaign was carrying an ugly secret – that it takes a shed load of Palm oil to grease the wheels of the Ugly World of beauty. And that sadly all to often means depleting forests and dead orangutans. Nothing pretty about that. And if you’re spouting Real as your mantra, the first person to get real should really be you.
This is not to say that both companies haven’t made enormous amends and changed the operational world of sourcing both human labour and palm oil in the process.
The point is they could have saved themselves a lot of Corporate PR money if they had just lifted up a few inconvenient stones and rummaged under some complex bushes.
There are many solutions and methods to help and enable Brand People to shape a simple top rung brand story without simply shelving the detail.
In the process of developing an approach designed originally to simplify the complex world of the circular economy and used more recently on a project I am undertaking to socialize the Genome, I have created a simple laddering model.
The example shows how one can create a simple and everyday mantra to represent a deep and impenetrably complex topic – in this case the Circular Economy – in 4 simple steps from Complexity To Simplicity.
It demonstrates that, as you climb the ladder, the simple use of human insight and a more creative strategic approach to populist territories and topics enables you to shift from the complexity of the Circular Economy towards a more general embracing life style framing in 4 simple steps.
Complexity. Insight. Territory. Simplicity
There is no reason why a model designed to mine and shape simple yet inclusive story telling from even the most complex subjects such as Sustainability and Genomic Science should and could not be applied to the average brand out there.
As the average consumer’s ability to scratch the shiny brand surface and plumb the depths of what happens beneath it increases, along with their ability to act against or delist at the click of button or the swipe of a touchscreen, its worth more than light consideration.
Be sure that your brand story isn’t pretending to be something it isn’t.
Hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.