‘Brands must focus sustainability on short term’

Brands should treat sustainability like any other business area and focus initiatives on the short term financial gain to make sure they continue to get backing from business leaders, according to research.

M&S Shwopping cited as example of sustainability with clear short-term financial drivers.

Havas Media’s Meaningful Brands report and turns much received wisdom – that sustainability must focus on the long-term impact – on its head.

Presenting the report at the Sustainable Brands conference in London last week, Kate Cox, strategy director at Havas says: “Instead of looking at the long-term, brands should really be looking at the short term business impact. Most marketers in sustainable communications aren’t doing that. We look more to long-term and not enough in terms of business. I’ve worked on too many projects in sustainability that haven’t been able to make it into a business case and if you can’t it will fall down.”

Cox adds that focusing on the financial performance will help brands overcome the cynicism UK consumers have towards businesses CSR efforts and greenwashing.

She cites Marks & Spencer’s Shwopping as an example of a sustainability campaign that focuses on driving business performance and doesn’t hide its intentions from consumers.

“People like that, when you live in a market like ours [Western Europe] the level of marketing saturation makes it hard for consumers to make choices. Brands have ceased to be the main driver of quality of life and there is a huge credibility gap,” she says.

A spokesperson for M&S told Marketing Week: “We make no apology for Plan A having a business case – CSR has moved on. Measuring it makes it so much more powerful and will encourage others and change the whole market.”

Five years after launching Plan A, M&S has calculated it now brings in an additional £105m for the business. The strategy broke even in its second year.

Nick Folland, Kingfisher group corporate affairs director who leads its Net Positive sustainability agenda, agrees that sustainability initiatives must deliver for the business like any other business area. Speaking at the conference he outlined how after a number of B&Q’s sustainability initiatives failed to gain traction with consumers or boost performance the department responsible for it “lost credibility” within the business.

He says: “We need to really think about the internal comms of it [sustainability]. In the past sustainability has felt like a special cause and could be treated differently but now we’re realising that it won’t win the internal debate just because it’s good for the planet.”

Fiona Hope, managing director of SodaStream UK, which aims to position itself as a sustainable business by highlighting the was of the soft drinks industry, believes that proving the short term benefit of sustainability is no different to the challenge marketers face to demonstrate return for all other activities.

She says: “Gone are the days when the claim ‘but it’s driving brand equity’ allowed marketers to swing through brand planning and investment meetings. I’m not suggesting that only the short term results are important but the future is so unpredictable for business and consumers and investment is so tight, proving that mechanics are working has never been so important.”

Nestle head of marketing and consumer communication Sandi Northey agrees in part that brand teams should focus on short term performance drivers but says that business will miss out if this is the only consideration.

She adds that brand teams must manage the requirements for performance metrics such as sales and margin growth alongside brand health metrics such as consideration, advocacy and trust.

She says: “Brands will miss many other benefits if they don’t look at their business through the longer-term sustainability lens. It will likely not be productive if the world’s brand teams jump into the sustainability arena seeking sales lifts only. Sustainability initiatives run so much deeper and longer-term than that, with a wider set of benefits for brands. That is what we want brand teams to understand and embrace. Near-term sales lifts or image improvements are a benefit and tells us we are on the right track but building more sustainable brands it is not a short-term game.”

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