Green Branding Brings Freedom to Act
A "brand" is business-speak for your standing in the community. And that standing is based on the sum of who you are, not just what you say. If someone in your neighborhood leads protests against a new coal plant, rides her bike to work everyday, and coaches a community soccer team — you're going to have an impression of her as a someone who cares.
However, the larger a company is, the more branding tends to get confined to the realm of communications. The reason for this is twofold. The first -- as businesses get larger, they hire outside communication agencies that are empowered to create messages, not policy. The second reason is that most of the things that people admire about companies stand in direct contrast to the kind of cost-cutting, stockholder-pleasing actions big corporations tend to take. Laying off employees and switching to a 12-prompt voice mail system are NOT the kind of actions that inspire people. The difference between what compels large conventional companies and what motivates dynamic mission-driven companies confers advantage on the latter. In essence, mission-driven companies are freer to take responsible actions than conventional ones. If a primary metric of your success is environmental impact, it's going to motivate you to take actions. And if those actions are in line with your public mission, then they also offer content for effective branding.
Patagonia: Employees Arrested? Good Job...
The beauty of this is that it should liberate you to take more of exactly the kind of actions you care about. If you're IBM and your employees get arrested for chaining themselves to bulldozers to stop a forest from being leveled -- it's really not your business aside from worrying about the work hours lost. But if you're Patagonia, you go and take their photo, support them, feature them in your catalogue, and bail them out of jail. Patagonia can do this because it's the right thing to do — and because they know they can funnel it into their brand content. Once you build your brand to communicate the actions that you take to pursue your ideals, it makes it easier to commit to more actions.
Larry's Beans: Why the Heck Not Use Grease for Fuel?
For example, it was easier for our friends at Larry's Beans to choose to spend money to convert their second vehicle to run on straight vegetable oil, because we had already built a brand architecture that communicated the brand's actions on a number of levels, from store fixtures to packaging to the web site. So when Larry's takes other actions, such as setting up their city's only distribution point for biodiesel 100 (locally brewed from mainly waste resources), it doesn't feel like a stretch. By aggressively yet sincerely and naturally communicating the brand's extracurricular behavior, it liberates them to be even more activist.
New Belgium Beer: Good Beer, More Bikes and Naked Protests
One brand that does an amazing job at putting this all together is the New Belgium Brewing Company. They sponsor a campaign to save the Poudre River (including a nude protest), an annual bike parade in which they give bikes to everyone who steps up to hand over the title and keys to their car; they have a wonderbike club for people who pledge to commute at least twice a month for a year , they're entirely wind-powered, they're turning their wastewater into fishfood and I could go on. There is no defining line between the brand and its sustainable practices -- instead their primary focus of their videos, web sites, and ads IS sustainability. As a result, not only are they constantly motivated to be sustainability activists, but they're continually rewarded as well.
Because sustainability requires communication to grow, integrating it into your branding isn't just self-serving, it serves the planet as well. Oddly enough, by helping to create marketplace advantage for doing things that have nothing to do with the bottom line — branding changes the calculus, so that those things DO help your bottom line.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic.
More From Jerry Stifelman on Green Branding and Marketing
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The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed
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