Brands for Purpose redefined in Vancouver
Dr. Thomas Schröder | Jun 14th 2018

Cover image credit: Sustainable Brands

This year’s annual pilgrimage to Sustainable Brands’ global flagship event for Purpose-Driven Brand Innovation took me to the Canadian West Coast city of Vancouver, British Columbia.

The skyline of this young city that played hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics is set against sweeping vistas of the Pacific Ocean and North Shore Mountains, as well as ancient coastal temperate rainforests.

Beautiful views over Vancouver from above in a seaplane

Sustainable Brands boasts a great line up of inspiring speakers representing the world’s leading purpose-driven brands. It’s a great occasion to network, spend time with old friends – and meet new ones.

As with last year, I am deeply amazed by the wealth of practitioner knowledge and the insights I was able to gather during my week at SB Vancouver.

Over the course of the four-day conference, South Pole had the chance to participate in three sessions.

On day one, I talked about Sustainable Event Communication, while on day three Renat Heuberger, our CEO, spoke in the session, 2020 Zero Net Deforestation Goals: Challenges and Accelerators. On the fourth and final day our expert on sports and sustainability, Mike Malara spoke on the Power of Purpose and Sport.

This idea of ‘Purpose’ has replaced ‘Sustainability’ (or CSR) as the rallying cry of brands looking to engage consumers searching for strong reasons to select one brand over another.

Many of the sessions in Vancouver focused on the ‘Purpose Revolution’ and how brands need to identify a purpose dear to them, their employees and their stakeholders. Consumers trust brands whose purpose they believe much more than they trust the general news media.

The C-Suite plays a pivotal role in carrying and in personifying the brand’s purpose internally and externally. Positive framing and influencers are ideally suited to advocate consumers to prefer sustainable choices.

Committing to a social purpose significantly improves a brand’s reputation; a purpose-driven brand’s appeal is much more powerful than a “normal” (unpurposeful) brand. The social purpose should be there first, with brand there to support it – not the other way around.

South Pole’s Tom Schröder, Director Marketing & Communications, delivering the session on sustainable event communications

Speakers at SB Vancouver encouraged brands to be bold and authentic, and to find “their” cause. Pure advertising is dead. Patagonia and REI were repeatedly identified as brands that successfully market themselves with a unique cause, e.g. via the “The President stole your Land” campaign.

Plastic waste, banning plastic bags and ocean plastic pollution are another topic that has quickly risen the ranks as one of the most pressing issues that brands associate themselves with.

This seems to be a reflection of the private sector taking action and openly antagonizing the Trump Administration – not unlike private actors taking climate action while the global governments are still debating.

Consumers are honoring brands whose purpose they trust. They are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

In the world of purpose, it’s all about partnerships. These can take on many different forms: big retailers, car manufacturer and restaurant chains like VW, IKEA, McDonald’s and Walmart are pooling resources to create a network of EV charging stations. Suppliers and local communities are teaming up with NGOs to create purpose networks.

Brands that give back to their communities through corporate volunteering are experiencing unprecedented popularity, e.g, L’Oréal’s “Citizen Day” or General Mills’ “Global Volunteer Week”.

From a Marketing perspective, SB Vancouver confirmed that “Marketing” is the good stuff, it is the ‘end’ for sustainable, purpose-driven brands. What brands really want is to improve their corporate image, to be authentic, and to meet the targets (SBT/SDG, etc.) they set themselves.

Products (e.g. carbon credits, RECs) and services (e.g. physical risk assessments, GHG accounting, supply chain advisory) are a ‘means to an end’ for these brands. When they’re ready, they will go to market to get the products and services they need. Yet, what matters to them is the whole sustainability journey – keeping in mind that it is about the brands, their purpose, and their corporate identity.

Storytelling is “king”: clients really look to service providers like South Pole to deliver them stories they can use in their communications.

What resonates well with brands and their clients are stories about impacts, co-benefits and SDGs. This is the core value many brands are looking for. ‘Classic’ carbon and renewable energy products and advisory are the necessary underpinnings to facilitate the brand’s desired outcome on their sustainability journey.

My key takeaways from SB Vancouver include:

  1. The ‘purpose revolution’ is still in full swing, as more global brands define their brand purpose, leveraging it to drive profit in a virtuous cycle
  2. Sustainable development is fast becoming a key element of corporate sustainability policies, spurred on further by surging importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  3. Carbon is the currency of sustainable development. Emission reductions projects span many different geographies and technologies and all contribute to the SDGs. Choosing projects with the right co-benefits to match a brand’s purpose not only helps it on its sustainability journey, but engages consumers
  4. The measurement and quantification of environmental impacts is key in understanding where global brands can improve.

The week in Vancouver was abuzz with great conversations and encounters. As I reflect on the impressions of SB18 Vancouver, I am already looking forward to next year’s gathering in Detroit.

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