The Debate: June/July 2018

A Multi-Part Series Looking at Marketing and Designing for Socially and Eco-Conscious Products, Services and Businesses


Kate Williams

CEO of 1% for the Planet

Can business really affect societal change?

I believe and also the evidence increasingly shows that business is a very important driver for social change in several different ways. One way is that businesses can actually create products and services, and then also run their operations in ways that represent at best solutions and at least, a kind of mitigation of any problems that they’re creating. I see another example in how businesses engage consumers in becoming aware of societal issues and then making choices with their dollars that drive social change.

Is there a business case for making corporate social responsibility part of a brand’s corporate DNA?

Absolutely. There is a strong business case, which is growing stronger, that’s largely driven by the consumer data that we’re seeing. Here’s a data point: An Unilever study showed that 33% of consumers are choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good. Let me give you another data point: A Cone Communications’ study found that 90% of shoppers consider the importance of a company’s responsible business practices. So there’s definitely key data indicating a very strong consumer contingent that wants to invest in brands that are making positive sustainability choices. I think that’s a huge opportunity uncovered in one of the studies I mentioned: Unilever analyzed the market for products for strongly eco-focused consumers to be $2.5 trillion.

How can business leaders determine how much of a role corporate social responsibility should play for their brands?

I love this question because there are similar but yet different considerations depending on the stage of the organization. My advice for all business leaders, regardless of whatever stage their brands are in development, is to start thinking through an authentic commitment where the brand can really integrate into how they do their work and then how they tell that story. Making this commitment  a very real and credible part of that brand story is super important no matter where in the life cycle of an organization you are.kate mt

For a challenger brand, there’s an additional opportunity to make that commitment deeply embedded in the whole brand story. This is more difficult for established brands because, as you know, it’s harder to change a narrative that’s already out there than to start a new one. So the advantage for starting a new brand is that a socially responsible focus can really be built into the DNA. The mission can become a very clear part of what the whole company stands for, and that company’s products or services emerge from that mission. This type of company will enjoy a very legitimate glow.

For a more established brand, they shouldn’t forget that their larger customer base represents opportunities to make societal change. They also have working capital that they can leverage for traction on a socially responsible project. This also makes sense from a purely business perspective because it allows a brand to re-engage with people, whether they are current or prospective brand fans.

Whether you are leading an established or a challenger brand, you need to make sure that your actions come from a super authentic place and have a credible, new narrative that’s reaching out to shoppers creatively because consumers will want to be skeptical until they are convinced that your mission is legitimate and genuine—not just some sort of a window dressing.

What are the risks and rewards of marketing a socially responsible product or service in this connected world?

I think that authenticity is enormously important. If there’s any suspicion on the part of consumers that it’s not a legitimate commitment or that the story that’s being told doesn’t actually tie back to real work or effort in the company. In the eyes of the consumers, I think it can be worse than not doing anything.

Be very clear and very diligent about telling an authentic story about what your company is doing and what your brand is not doing. There’s a great appreciation right now for transparency. We saw that with Patagonia. They’re not perfect, but they’ve been willing to say, here’s what we are doing that’s going really well and here’s what’s not working as well but we’re going to tell you about it. They even acknowledged the public’s response and basically said, Hey, you called us out on this. We’re going to respond, and we’re going to learn.

That’s just one example of the great radical transparency out there. Radical transparency doesn’t mean you have to have everything solved, but it does mean that you’re willing to open up to a conversation about what you have down pat and what you don’t. It’s better to be honest and say, we’re not as good at this or that, because I think people would rather hear that than find out that you’re saying, we got all of this and then find out that you don’t actually have it all covered. Be authentic and super transparent, and most things will sort of follow from that.

What can a marketer do today to make a difference?

Think internally, and think externally.  For internal projects, business leaders should start by simply learning about a cause they care about. They can then leverage that knowledge against what they already know about their business to find out how they could do an existing process better. This process can be in supply chain management, operations or facilities.

When looking externally, I have to mention 1% for the Planet. An external partner like 1% for the Planet can be a great support for business. So my advice is to find the issues that are relevant to your business and look for a non-profit partner that you can work with to address that issue or make a contribution to the solution for that issue. This approach can educate a business leader and provide an opportunity for employee engagement through volunteering or similar activities. Working with a third party can also just be a really great way to authentically engage a business in a larger context than which it operates typically. While it’s important for business leaders to look internally, if they only do that, they could miss an opportunity to connect the business to a larger community.

What trends are you seeing in the marketing of socially responsible products or services?

Sustainability is applying more to products and services. For example, lawyers, architects and similar firms are joining our network. Eco consciousness is not just a consumer product play. Services are now more in the mix of sustainable brands. To see that sustainability is more integral to any form of business in the world is a great trend! 

The other thing that we’re seeing is an increased emphasis on storytelling as the way to communicate what’s being done—especially in social media. It’s similar to how marketing generally is playing out, with a real emphasis on storytelling.

That’s not to say the role of third-party certifiers such as B Corp., 1% for the Planet, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade are not playing an important role. Certifiers have and will continue to be important. In some cases, certifiers have created the market. Look at Fairtrade, which has been around for a while. When Fairtrade started, it created a framework that enabled the growth of a different sort of coffee or chocolate business. As you know, Fairtrade then expanded significantly because, as a third party certifier, Fairtrade played a critical role in providing those efforts with a marketable level of credibility. Again, this goes back to the critical need consumers have to really believe a mission is the real thing.

How can individuals in the marketing and branding community help businesses become better corporate citizens?

Be aware that if a project is marketing driven, there’s a risk of it becoming inauthentic. As a marketing professional, you can guard against storytelling going too far and it becoming story spinning.

On the flip side, be ready and able to tell the sustainability stories that might serve that sort of marketing framework best.

Also work toward greater integration between marketing functions and business functions because you need to know the real, raw story to be able to have any real sort of transparency.

Is there anything else that you would share with the Brand Experience audience?

I think the only thing I would add is, it’s a great time for businesses to remember how important and powerful the individuals are who are purchasing their products and services and to really tap into that in a positive way and engage with those consumers. There’s a huge opportunity here!

Business leaders are also consumers, so I encourage all of us wherever we sit on that spectrum to make purchases from businesses with a corporate social responsibility strategy and a commitment to bring that strategy to life.