Welcome to the human-to-human era

20 Jun 2019
SOURCE:
Alison Herft, Manager, Members and Consumer Programme

If there was any place to be this year to get the latest on how brands are increasingly connecting sustainability and marketing, and meet the people making the change on a global scale, it was the Sustainable Brands conference in Detroit.

It was incredible to meet so many influential and inspirational leaders in sustainability and brand development. Adding to the inspiration was a strong New Zealand contingent at the conference, including great people from NZ Post and Enviro-Mark Solutions. Between us all, we networked with hundreds of other attendees through keynote sessions, workshops and other activities such as the run club and an urban regeneration tour.

How do you distill four days’ immersion in the latest and greatest on consumer experience, the regenerative economy, sustainability leadership, and systems thinking? There’s no way to capture everything, but here are the themes and trends that really stood out for me:

  • Brands must rethink what marketers do, and who they’re marketing to. Many presenters talked about the importance of treating customers as people, not faceless consumer groups and market segments. And classifying your business as just “B2B” or “B2C” is increasingly looking outmoded and false. Valerie Hernando-Presse, Chief Marketing Officer of Danone Global, said “The future of marketing is human. Welcome to the human-to-human era”. She talked about how it’s a new citizen paradigm, so think about your brand as being a vehicle for people to live their values. Ron Busby, CEO of the U.S. Black Chambers Inc., said that when working with African American businesses, the conversation should not be about them as a market segment, or “required” business, it should be about setting up partnerships where there’s a value proposition for all citizens of Earth.
  • Engaging in the regenerative and circular economy is getting big. The words ‘circular’ and ‘regenerative’ came up in almost every keynote and break-out session. Marie Stafford, European Director of The Innovation Group, Wunderman Thompson, challenged brands to be bold and change their model from one of just selling more towards one of “made to last”. And to look at how and where they can engage with the rental, repair and sharing economies, which is increasingly being done well to fit with people’s desires and needs. Bill McDonough, one of the originators of Cradle-to-Cradle thinking and design, advised brands to design products as services – see them as perpetual assets.
  • Messaging around sustainability is increasingly being done in an appealing, creative and accessible way. Julia Channing, VP of Marketing at Allbirds, showed how they incorporate storytelling into 3D format with their store design and materials, and place their ads in strategic places outdoors. She said its about turning science into art, based on a design philsophy with sustainability at the core – this makes for a better product for customers, and can help them find the sweet spot between education and entertainment. Lisa Boyd, Senior Director of Corporate Responsibility from Target, talked about how they position their products and initiatives around style first – messaging about sustainability is secondary, and is presented as a default part of product design.
  • Positioning sustainability through a health lens – personal health and planetary health – is resonating well with a wider audience. Kristin Stevens, Senior Marketing Manager, U.S. at Marine Stewardship Council, talked about how brands need to aspire to meet the “blue consumer” where they’re at – this is their term for more mainstream customers that, when shopping, aspire to a better, healthier life and want to balance the “right thing to do” with the “cool thing to do”. And Ovie Mughelli, former NFL fullback, is using sports as a catalyst – including a new comic called “Gridiron Green” – to create the aspiration among children and sports communities for better planetary health. And I loved the idea of enabling “tree equity” that came up through our “Deep Roots” urban regeneration tour, where urban design includes criteria around people getting the protection and benefit of tree canopies where and when they need it.
  • There are big opportunities for those brands that can close the value-action gap/intent-action gap. Therewere a lot of stats about how hard it still is to convert people’s intention to do something to actually doing it. Marie Stafford (Wunderman Thompson) said that it’s common human behaviour to overestimate our actions and gloss over the things we’re doing that aren’t so good. The alternatives aren’t around that would make action accessible, affordable and convenient. So there’s a huge opportunity for those brands that can design their services and messaging with this behaviour in mind, and look at what the points are in the value chain they can make change.
  • There’s growing momentum behind the “forest-positive future” approach. There are some big brands, such as Apple, Walmart and Unilever, working on this approach already, and it’s not entirely new, but it seems to be regaining momentum. Particularly as there’s a new idea of developing a science-based target approach to forests, which starts with the questions “What’s the 1.5 degree equivalent for forests?” and “What quality and quantity of trees and forests would we need to achieve this?”

What’s next

You can watch the interviews I did with Suzanne Lindsay Walker, Director of Sustainability, Brambles CHEP North America and Nicol Sobczyk, Operations Director for Seed Phytonutrients, L’Oreal USA at the conference. And I’m contacting other brand and sustainability leaders from the Sustainable Brands network about doing some members-only webchats later this year – stay tuned!

To continue helping members connect with where New Zealanders are at, and design strategies around what living well really looks and feels like to them (and us), we’ll keep bringing the Good Life 2.0 Playbook New Zealand insights to a range of audiences.

I’ll follow up on the Brands For Good initiative that was launched at Sustainable Brands, and see what the opportunities are for SBC members. This campaign has three main ambitions, including to work together to transform the field of marketing to shift behaviours and drive positive impact with people, communities, and the planet we share. I’ll also keep an eye on the development of the SB Brand Transformation Roadmap self-assessment tool for mainstream brands and businesses who are navigating their journey towards more sustainable business practices.

Alison Herft is the Manager, Members and Consumer Programme at SBC.