How do you distinguish yourself as a sustainable company?

Marketing is infested these days: sustainable, diverse, transparent, inclusive, B Corp… woke. But if everyone propagates the same thing, how distinctive is it? I spoke to purpose-driven marcom experts about how they deal with this.

Sustainability has become a vague state

“You can’t deny that it’s getting a bit fuzzy,” says Danielle Guirguis. Guirguis is CEO of Smarthouse Creative Impact Studio, which recently won a Golden Calf. As a branding agency, it works exclusively for what we can call purpose-driven brands, such as Tesla, NAIF and FairPhone. ‘How do you define sustainability, for example, is an interesting question,’ she continues. ‘How far do you go into the supply chain to assess that? You now also see the billion-dollar companies claiming all sorts of things and you know, they are certainly not in order across the board. This dilutes consumer confidence.’

Impact brands are also doing marketing now

It’s a common sentiment. Yet Guirguis and the other interviewees certainly do not only look skeptically at the increasing spread of the world improvement gospel. ‘Not so long ago, we were still proud of not doing anything about marketing,’ says Kathrin Beck, who has held the marketing scepter at Chocolatemakers for two years as Head of Branding. This brand sets the bar exceptionally high in terms of corporate social responsibility. For example, they have the necessary cocoa shipped by sailboats to minimize CO2 emissions.

“But times have changed,” continues Beck. ‘It has gradually also become common practice among impact brands that a well-thought-out marketing strategy is necessary to grow and thus – and that is what it is all about – optimizing the positive impact on people and the planet. A considerable professionalization has been made.’

Laughed out loud

Freek Wessels, trailblazer when it comes to world-improving companies, agrees. When he moved from a bright future at Heineken ten years ago to Tony’s Chocolonely, then a club of five people – he was, he says, ‘sort of laughed at’. And that, in a way, outlines the development of the world-improving segment. Tony’s Chocolonely has marked a standard in the do-good area in the Netherlands and with 150 people it turned over about 75 million euros when Wessels left two years ago. Now, in addition to finance supervisor at Doctors of the World and the Food Bank Amsterdam, he is Co-owner and Strategist at Johnny Cashew. The sustainable food start-up aims for all cashew nuts to be processed in the country of origin and not, as is still the current practice, to be dragged halfway across the world.

‘In addition to the activist and idealistic component, a demonstrably healthy business model has emerged for purpose brands,’ says Wessels, ‘and of course you see more privateers appear on the coast. On balance, I think that’s a good thing. Consumer and marketer awareness is increasing. We can also build on that with our round-trip nuts.’

Clear measurement points

There is a consensus among the interviewees that more control of all those world-improving claims is necessary. At the same time, it is now again not very easy to obtain, for example, the highly sought after B Corp quality stamp. Blyde Benelux, the first B Corp PR agency in the Benelux (with clients such as Too Good To Go, Swapfiets and Alpro) is now also a B Leader. This allows it to guide other brands on the road to B Corp status. ‘B Corp has a strict certification process’, says Lorette der Kinder (Blyde CEO), ‘which requires companies to demonstrate how they operate socially and environmentally responsible. The company must also include in its articles of association that it operates as a force for good. And three years after certification, everything is reassessed. You really don’t just walk through it.’

Her business partner Nynke Geus van den Broek adds, ‘And you as a brand are also under increasing scrutiny these days. If you don’t live up to your claims, sooner or later you will be dealt with automatically.’ By this she refers, among others, to the energy suppliers Greenchoice and Vattenfall, the sports store chain Decathlon and fashion chain H&M, which were recently reprimanded by the Authority for Consumers and Markets for unjustified sustainability claims, and had to admit that they spread disinformation under penalty of fines.

How do you still distinguish yourself in all that world-improving marketing violence?

Intrinsic motivation

In short, world improvement has now proven itself as an attractive route. This results in a fast-growing market where, on the one hand, clear standards are used, but corners are also cut, in the perception of the interviewees. This all leads to the question, how do you still distinguish yourself in all that world-improving marketing violence?

Danielle Guirguis of Smarthouse emphasizes the importance of the process and of intrinsic motivation. ‘You shouldn’t want to work for brands that actually do it for profit,’ she says. ‘Ultimately it comes down to two things. First, what does the brand contribute? In other words, what are the Key Impact Indicators? Two, how do we ensure that the brand in question is as successful as possible and can therefore make the greatest possible positive impact? We bring this to the surface by means of short-term but intensive Smarthouse sparring sessions with potential clients. If it is truthful and if the customer’s intrinsic motivation is therefore correct, then you are often very close to what really moves and touches the consumer and therefore to the power of the story.’

Something that the Blyde management can agree with, ‘We only work for brands and organizations that want to contribute to society from the core,’ says Lorette der Kinder, ‘Because we believe that it can only be really successful if it comes from the core. DNA comes and is woven throughout the organization. You should tell the impact story because you think it’s important, not because it would be distinctive. And what comes with that is that you are also open about what is still lacking, what you want but have not yet achieved. If you really dare to think about what system change is needed in your sector, you can join forces with other pioneers and make a difference in the long term.’

Andere benefits

Beck van Chocolatemakers emphasizes once again that the claim of sustainability is becoming hygiene rather than distinctive: ‘There is no longer a shortage of sustainable brands,’ she says. Not even in the regular supermarket. You will therefore also have to look for the distinctive character elsewhere. For example, as we do, in the quality, the taste of our product.’

In the words of Guirguis: ‘Durability once meant less quality and less expensive. Then it became something a brand could boast of. In a sense that is still the case, but when it comes to purpose brands you will also have to demonstrate that you perform in other areas. You can see that this market is still far from perfect, but it has matured considerably in recent years. We’re going in the right direction.’

Source: Frankwatching by

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