Harnessing the Power of Brands: Highlights from the Sustainable Brands Brand-led Culture Change Conference

Harnessing the Power of Brands: Highlights from the Sustainable Brands Brand-led Culture Change Conference

By: Valerie Hawks

Consumers hold the key to sustainability in the CPG industry and brands hold the responsibility to shepherd them forward. The Sustainable Brands Brand-led Culture Change conference in Minneapolis last month was a fantastic intro for me into the Sustainable Brands world. The conference hosts their flagship event every year in October in San Diego, and they host a smaller conference every year in May in Minneapolis. Attended by everyone from large brands to singular consultancies, the conversations I had ran the gamut of topics around sustainability. One minute I was chatting with someone from Disney about compostable pilot programs on their campus and the next I was talking to a white-label olive oil company about the struggle with sustainability when you don’t actually have your own brand. The diversity of backgrounds was a great catalyst for engaging and thoughtful discussions.

Me! Downtown Minneapolis

When talking about a “brand-led culture change” we’re talking about how brands can help consumers to make more sustainable purchasing decisions, and how brands themselves can adopt more sustainable practices from the inside out - think corporate sustainability and ESG. The speakers ranged from heads of sustainability for multinational brands to research analysts talking about the psychology behind consumer behavior. The two big takeaways from this event were that we need to stop talking about the dire urgent nature of climate change (which is especially difficult to ignore at the moment with the air quality in NYC), and the intention versus action gap for consumers.

Samuel Monnie opening the event

We know climate change is happening now and that we’re reaching near irreversible levels with nearly all aspects of it from rising temperatures to the loss of biodiversity. We know that recycling rates are abysmal and energy consumption is at an all time high. Why wouldn’t we want to talk about these sobering statistics to sway consumers in their purchasing decisions? Because they are smarter and more optimistic than we assume. They need an emotional solution to an emotional problem. You need to be selling comfort and security and reliability and reassurance. How can you make sustainability seamlessly fit into their lives? How can you make it invisible? Remove the jargon (we’re looking at YOU acronyms!) between your brand and the consumer to better tell your story. Many consumers already feel that they’re doing as much as they can. You should aim to make them feel good about making the decision to purchase your product, without making them do more work. And definitely without scaring them with doom and gloom about the future. At the point of purchase, consumers are not able to see an abstract non-tangible risk like climate change that we as brands are assuming. 

Slide from Annie Longsworth’s (Sustainability Strategy and Communications Executive) opening presentation

Intention versus action. This gap is a chasm that our industry needs to figure out how to bridge. Almost every talk at SB Brand-led Culture Change that I attended had some element of this topic being discussed. In my daily work I encounter this issue. We hear all of the stats, we see all of the reports and studies, and they all concur that more consumers than not prefer sustainable products and sustainable brands. But do they actually spend their money in alignment with that preference? Not at the level we would like to see. Despite their desire to purchase more sustainable products, consumers often revert back to the status quo at the moment of purchase due to price and concerns about product performance. The old adage about sustainability equaling “not as good” and “not luxury” is still an unfortunate belief.

Mary Jane Melendez & Samuel Monnie talking about how General Mills is creating a movement of good

Similar to countering the use of fear tactics in selling sustainability, we need to meet the consumer with empathy. We need to understand them, and provide solutions to their problems that don’t create more work. We need to make it easy for consumers to choose sustainable products. Some of that is done through avoiding undefined labels by utilizing clear messaging on pack with third party certifications, and clean, fact based language. Incorporating story-telling wherever possible is key and we should also be openly acknowledging the challenges we’re facing. Some additional anti-fear based tactics incorporate the literal layout of the retail environment so that it can physically guide consumers to the more sustainable products before they ever even encounter the alternatives.

I very much understand that all of this is easier said than done. It's a lot of cerebral information with not as much active direction as we’d like. Moving forward with clear parameters of what works and what doesn’t would be fantastic, but in the meantime, having this at the forefront of our thinking as we’re establishing or enforcing our sustainability offerings and product attributes will help to guide us in the right direction. But you have to be talking about what you’re doing. If people don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t get credit for it. If you don’t measure your impact, you’re automatically giving it the value of zero. That isn’t helping anyone in this equation.

I found the Sustainable Brands community to be a welcoming one filled with rich conversations with a diverse range of professionals. All of the panels I attended felt highly relevant. The speakers were top notch -absolutely fantastic. I’ll end this with a few key (paraphrased) takeaways from some of them. And I will definitely be back at an SB event in the future.

“Focus on Impact + Action over Goals + Aspirations.” - Whitney Dailey, EVP Purpose, Allison + Partners

“We are past the moment of prevention for almost every issue that matters.” - Mindy Barry, Senior Director marketing, Mars Pet Care

“Nothing will ever be easy and not fail. Be transparent and be honest.” - Jeff Hoffman, SVP Customer Development, Unilever

“Environmentalism can be like a religion. Instead of questioning what someone does, we question who they are and it isn’t working.” - Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder, Futerra

“3/4ths of people would listen to influencers and social media creators just as they would friends and family. Brands can train influencers in more sustainable lifestyles to be able to affect change amongst more consumers.” - Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder, Futerra

“Welcome to trying to save the planet. It’s big work.” - Mary Jane Melendez, Chief Sustainability and Global Impact Officer, General Mills

“We’re choosing change, we’re not choosing to not make money.” - Lola Bakare, Inclusive Marketing Strategist.

“Customers shop for dinner. Not to save the environment.” - Sille Krukow, Nudge and Behavioral Design Expert.

“If you want to build trust, be trustworthy. Start with internal integrity, not external optics.” - Simon Mainwaring, Author and Branding Expert.

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