Sustainability and purpose: Big opportunities ahead
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Last year, the BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report was dominated by two interlinked topics: the impact of Covid-19 and sustainability. Much of the world was in a state of suspended animation and seemed to be holding its breath. A year on, the same topics remain high on the agenda, but some important developments have taken place.
The coronavirus accelerated many trends that were already present; for example, it is credited with driving a decade’s progress in e-commerce in a year. Localism received a significant boost as working from home became a new normal. Opinion remains divided, but the pivot online was sudden and effective. Some businesses have famously moved permanently to working from home, while others rejoice at the reopening of offices.
At the same time, it prompted some review of lifestyles and values, as Kantar’s Covid-19 Barometer data showed. Covid-19 provided a vast behaviour change experiment in living, working, cooking, education, shopping, entertainment, socialising, exercise and more. Some of this will ebb away, associated with bad times and constraint. But other things will stick: spending time with our significant people/loved ones; considering our purchases; planning and self-sufficiency; and improved hygiene. This last action, a coping mechanism that effectively combats the virus, has also brought huge and visible challenges to sustainability, as a wave of plastic and chemicals overwhelmed our immediate environments.
The resurgence of nature became an early meme and images of clean skies over industrial areas were striking; time spent outside proved to be important to mental health and, in many countries, people have been leaving cities for greener pastures; estate agents have reported that a garden or access to a natural environment are now key search terms for buyers, as well as a spare room to work in.
The pandemic also provided the background to renewed demands for social justice, with tragic incidents of individual and collective trauma. Two of the most pivotal events were the death of George Floyd, which highlighted issues of racism in the US police force, and Sarah Everard’s death in the UK and ensuing anti-rape movement Everyone’s Invited. The position of those who couldn’t work from home, many more of whom became sick, has been a salient feature of the pandemic, adding to a renewed sense of what is truly essential. Inclusion, equality and equity are urgent across a widening range of areas.
In all of this, what was the role of brands? Brands that innovated to meet the change have prospered hugely. Everyday brands had a role as emblems of normality and reliability, and there was almost no indication in our data that people wanted to see less advertising. But it was perhaps in their role as businesses that brand owners did most, with celebrated examples of brewers and perfumers turning their alcohol businesses to hand sanitiser, and luxury goods manufacturers turning their sewing machines to PPE.
In truth, our Covid-19 Barometer suggests people weren’t saying about brands specifically, even as they appreciated their efforts. The first role of business was as an employer and then as a citizen. Brands, as one of the most salient faces of businesses, have always needed cultural relevance, and if brands want to matter to their customers, they will need to take into account the wider requirements that people now have of them.
This is what our colleague J. Walker Smith wrote about in these pages last year as the new marketing era of the public. Increasingly, brand owners recognise the need and opportunity for their brands to discover an authentic purpose that will guide their decisions, grow their brand power, and have a positive impact in the world.
Our model for this work is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the closest thing the world has to a strategy for development, and one that many businesses now use to frame their actions. It may be easier for a brand that’s born with purpose than it is for long-established brands to do this, but all strong brands have a reason to exist, and the SDGs offer a wide scope of purposeful objectives in which brands can find additional strength and new sources of value with genuine alignment.
The other significant thing that has happened is the return of the world’s largest economy to the Paris Agreement, with serious intent. There’s also a dawning realisation that we now have only nine years to contain runaway climate change, and people across the globe beginning to recognise the emergency.
Businesses, financiers and brand owners, with their talent for innovation, enterprise and value creation, are uniquely placed to contribute and enable their customers to make the necessary changes. Their role will be vital. This is the moment for business that hasn’t yet recognised the imperative to do so. Genuine leadership is required and disruptive change too, but the opportunity is huge — both commercially and reputationally. In the context of climate action and net-zero commitments, distinctions are already being drawn between those who understand the need to act now for 2030 and “2050ers”, who don’t yet have a plan.
- Evolve your raison d’être to stay relevant in the era of the public.
- (Re) discover the authentic purpose of your brand.
- Anchor your impact in the UN SDG framework to enhance meaningfulness.
- Grow brand power
About the authors: Mariana Peneva is director, strategic consulting at Kantar.
Sarah King is senior director, brand, insights division at Kantar.
This article was paid for by Kantar.
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