The Debate: A multi-part series looking at marketing and designing for socially and eco-conscious products, services and businesses
Partner at Works Design Group
How can a business determine if socially conscious, including eco-friendly, design and development should be central to its DNA?
Looking back at corporations and businesses, their sole purpose was to benefit shareholders. That’s the reason they existed to make money for shareholders and that’s it.
Around 30 years ago, things changed. Maybe it started with Newman’s Own, when two pioneers figured out that corporations exert a lot of influence on society, the political sphere and social consciousness. So a company could be a vehicle to do good and give back. They understood that the nonprofit world and government served that societal-change space, but they asked if corporations can also do good, and help promote wealth, public welfare and so forth. And so Newman’s Own did it. They were real pioneers because they are structured as a for-profit corporation and they give back 100% of their profits.
Today, that is even more so. Consumers are looking at corporations differently now. Consumers have access to a lot more information.
They are also a lot more influential. One consumer today can leverage social media to shape public awareness. Given that consumers have this power, they are making, if not social responsibility—transparency in what brands and companies are offering, a minimum requirement.
Social media has created a different environment. The conversations are more of a give and take than it was with traditional advertising. Socially conscious design, development and marketing can be more than just the new responsibilities of companies, they can help create positive equity with consumers who are really savvy about their purchasing decisions. Doing good can be rewarding because it can inject authenticity into the conversations being had between brands and shoppers in social media.
Consumers want to engage with brands, but they don’t take bullshit anymore. They have a lot of information at their fingertips. They don’t want to be “talked to.” They want to be part of conversations about where their favorite products come from, how the packaging is sourced for their favorite products, and what happens to all of it once they are done with the products and the packaging.
Not every company ends to occupy the same space on the spectrum of social responsibility. Sometimes, the way a company is structured means that the initiative must be a marketing and branding tool first. Be transparent about it because $50,000 that went to a charity instead of Facebook ads is still $50,000 for the better good.
Know, though, that the companies that will win over consumers are the companies wholly committed to giving back. For these companies, their whole business model is based on this concept of companies can change the world. They believe that companies can serve as a third pillar in society, along with government and nonprofits, to support the public welfare. Newman’s Own was a pioneer in this category, but more and more of these types of companies are popping up.
Many companies are the younger and trendier companies. These startups are interested in corporate social responsibility for the best reasons. Not that leveraging a marketing benefit for doing good things is a bad thing, but these startups make social responsibility more than a tool. Social responsibility is at the core of their businesses. For example, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY, it hires at-risk or homeless people and teaches them how to bake goods.
There are package manufacturing companies that are making eco-friendly part of their core. Some of these companies are implementing eco-friendly design and social responsibility with great transparency, such as Method. To me, Method is closer to the true authenticity and core to the business model end of the spectrum because they’re focused on producing bio-degradable and green packaging.
The benefit to these companies for doing the right thing is that shoppers pick up on that and consumers give these companies much deserved attention for doing something for the good of society. And so they get that marketing boost even if it is not the ultimate goal.
Social responsibility is about more than product design and package design or even giving money to a charity. It’s whom you align with, what you do with your money beyond donations, and even the messages behind your marketing and communication.
Companies can fall anywhere on this spectrum, depending on your appetite and your need as a business owner, leader, or senior marketer. But just know there’s another layer to all this, and that’s authenticity.
Because consumers are so smart today and they’re so looped into everything, know that a single consumer, just one consumer, can start a waterfall of either problems or positive press. Knowing where your company is on that spectrum and making sure that your messaging and design reflects that can prevent you from disproportionately emphasizing the impact of your initiative. This is important because companies that misrepresent their social responsibility initiatives, whether it was unintentional or gratuitous, can experience dramatic backlash.
There are ways to help ensure that your social responsibility project is an authentic extension of your brand. Choose the right charity—something that is aligned with your brand promise not a disjointed one. Make a conscious effort to not overpromise to shoppers.
In the last half decade, consumer empowerment has come of age and those risks have been super amplified. So, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Not acting though carries the risk of being maligned for a failure to act. Understand that there’s no way to win everyone. There always will be somebody that’s unhappy with decisions you make.
You can find the right happy medium with the people you consider key stakeholders. So I feel that not acting carries less risk but it still carries risk.
How can designers overcome these challenges?
Whether it’s product or package or design or branding, it goes back to being well calibrated as far as to your messaging. So audit your organization, understand what your access is to senior management and how much tolerance they have for this type of thing and what their vision is for the company. Then audit your competitors and understand who is succeeding according to your company’s matrix. Learn how you can align doing good with doing well with things like certifications for B corporations.
Pulling on my past experience as a lawyer, I know that many states have enacted guidelines around for-benefit corporations. Often there’s a professional audit system and a process to maintain that. Knowing that, consumers often give a lot of weight to brand’s that can put the B Corp logo on their packages.
On a more purely visual level, I would suggest designers look at what Level Ground Trading did with the messaging and packaging for its coffee. Each package prominently shows a picture of the farmer involved in the planting and harvesting of the coffee—raising awareness, compassion and respect for coffee farms. And this socially responsible brand has earned shelf space at mainstream retailers such as Kroger.
As a visual artist, you can look for opportunities to highlight some of the good that your company is doing, which can increase your corporation’s appetite for doing more good in the world.
I also suggest starting by aligning yourself with causes with something already in common with your brand personality. You can start to put your brand out there in an experimental way by allocating a small portion of your budget to a nonprofit or multiple nonprofits. That’s what our client The Soulful Project did.
Once you have buy-in for social responsibility initiatives in your business, you can continue to ramp up that activity. Patagonia is a great example of how to do that.
The founders are very concerned about the environment and preservation of the national parks and causes like that. But they keep expanding Patagonia’s mission. They fairly recently started something like a nonprofit venture capital fund. It’s aligned with their conversation and sustainability missions, so it’s a logical tie-in, and they have probably invested tens of millions of dollars. Starting a venture capital fund to seed a bunch of like-minded companies is good for their corporate “souls.”
Sometimes you can encourage change so it carries less visibility outside and maybe less risk by working to change how a company treats its own employees. Start with the people on your division or team and share your success with other managers.
Like so much in business, it’s about being opportunistic and using your budget in ways that experiments and stretches your team with the aim for a longer term change. For designers at a large company, it’s about ultimately selling an idea into the C-suite.
For marketers, it can be different. In a smaller company, if you are a CMO and there are 20 employees, you are often right there next to the CEO and, maybe, a couple of your investors making decisions that help forge your company DNA. If your small business is a family business, there might be a whole different set of dynamics in place. You might have to identify a small investment, but that can be the starting point for something larger.
Is there something that you’re doing that’s not being fully leveraged from a marketing perspective or not being heavily invested in or not, you know, being focused on enough and can you put a little bit of budget into enhancing it? And even if not, are there opportunities to invest a small portion of your budget into initiatives that can, at a minimum, generate some marketing and PR opportunities for you?
How are people creating more socially conscious businesses or developing more social consciousness into an existing business changing?
We hit on a lot of trends already, but the trend everyone should be looking at is aligning socially conscious initiatives to what your business does for money. There, you can find the right initiative for you, which might be something as close to home as creating better human resources policies such as more paternity and maternity leave or more flexible types of leave, scheduling mindfulness training and yoga into the workday, or recognizing the amount of hours that employees spend at work and making it a more inviting and livable environment.
Another trend, which can dovetail nicely with the alignment trend, is impact investing. You’re seeing more and more venture capital funds pop up that have at their purpose powering socially conscious an eco-friendly initiatives.
One trend we haven’t talked about is the growing language for socially responsible business. We still need iconography and certifications that all consumers know of, but I think it’s a definite trend that more badges, certifications and other proof points are popping up.
One trend that has been going on for a while is the desire to use more eco-friendly packaging. We’ve seen packages made from recycled materials such as ocean waste, and there will always be new materials and products in that space. Shoppers will continue to expect packaging with smaller impacts on the environment, but many influencers will start to look at how everything material from package to product is sourced.
We see this all the time with food, but this concern about how materials are sourced will grow across categories.
Companies will also continue to realize that how they treat their employees is more than an HR issue. How you treat your employees is a great tool for recruiting, yes, but it’s becoming a sort-of badge that companies use to demonstrate that they are holistically good for society: ‘We’re good to our customers; we are good to our vendors, and we’re really good to our employees.” Watch for vernacular to grow on this subject, much like with the triple bottom line.
Anything else you would like to share with Brand Experience magazine’s audience about incorporating social responsibility into their branding and marketing activities?
What I hope the readers takeaway is that corporations occupy a space on a societal level that never existed before. Companies had only existed to make money. In today’s market environment, companies are now incentivized to become not just good players but become leaders and start to kind of occupy a space that used to belong solely to government and nonprofits—working towards the greater good, social welfare. Companies are powerful because they know how to make money. Good companies can make trillions and trillions of dollars that even a little one company’s profit can match what the whole non-profit industry is doing. The reason it’s so important to me is because I actually think it’s transformational for the world if business and capitalism could be used for the greater good.