Finding your sweet spot for sustainable brand growth

How can brand trackers identify opportunities for a better world? Here is our view, with additional insight from Unilever’s Catriona Ferris.
17 March 2021
Finding your sweet spot for sustainable brand growth
Mary Kyriakidi

Global Thought Leader, Brand Guidance

Catriona Ferris Unilever

Consumer Insight Director, Homecare Europe, Unilever

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Over the course of last year, our day-to-day lives changed substantially and people’s wellbeing (rightfully so) became their top priority. Survival mode kicked in, staying safe against a deadly virus that was all around us became our new, entrenched mindset and we swapped plastic-free for plastic-sealed goods without a second thought. Momentarily, we wondered whether our worldly fixation with sustainability would lessen, but the opposite is true – the pandemic has been shining a brighter spotlight on sustainable behaviours.

And here’s why. COVID-19 has been a life-changing event for most of us. An emotional rollercoaster, a sequence of familiar behaviours, yet never in our lifetime experienced in such a quick succession. From disbelief, initial shock and panic-buying, to a wholesome living, online fatigue and a newfound appreciation for the simple things. Our COVID-19 Barometer study revealed that whilst we are all craving to go back to our old lives, a significant number of people don’t want to go back to life just as it was. In the last few months, we’ve observed a community focus, a recalibration of ambitions and expectations on a personal level, a rise in sustainable behaviours, overall, a kinder and more equitable society. Which is not surprising; as with any troubled era in the past, this last year has inspired positive human progress. So, our desire is not for a ‘new normal’, but for a ‘new better’.

What does this mean for your brand?

Let’s look at a couple of sectors for inspiration. The world of travel is not new to crisis. After 9/11, the public was shaken and scared. It took critical innovation to address the unmet needs of customers and employees. Yes, our flying experience has been spoilt since, but an unmistaken signal that we are in control and that it’s now safe to fly again was sent out – this is what combatted our nervousness of flying.

And when it comes to health, our sweet obsession with wellbeing has been growing stronger. Almost a third of our food and drink servings are chosen for their positive health benefits and the trend is also true for health and beauty products that promote wellness from within. Only last year, more than 200 vegan products were launched in the UK alone and our research shows that the significant majority of those who consume them are meat-eating carnivores.

Disruption creates a momentum to look for alternatives for positive change. Product-led innovation and more so experience-led innovation will trigger sparks of real strengthening of a business’ brand equity. Here’s the evidence:

  • 60% more innovations were launched by winning brands than brands that lost share ‘at the shelf’ between the 2008 and 2011 recession (Kantar’s Europanel Research*)
  • Across the FMCG categories in the UK, real new product development ‘NPD’ (vs. renovation) dominated the top 10 rankings for the last two years
  • Recession-launched products are more likely to strike a chord with consumers than those launched in the middle or end of boom times (Launch products in this recession, Smarter Marketing gets Better Results)

The commercial success is a critical point for brands, it would be frivolous not to acknowledge this. But consumers’ expectations of brands committing to making our society better are real (revealed in the Edelman Trust Barometer and our own Global MONITOR and COVID-19 Barometer) and the two are intertwined. Our BrandZ data is compelling: over the recent period of 12 years, brands with perceived positive impact have grown in brand value at a faster rate compared to those with low perceived positive impact. And those that tried to put a plaster on it (i.e. the brands with a perceived average impact) are closer to the weak ones. Meaning, these brands have been called out by consumers and their attempt wasn’t really worth the effort.

‘It’s not about purpose or profit, but about purpose with profit,’ Tony’s Chocolonely declare with a motto that’s engrained in their DNA. A brand founded with the sacred purpose to eradicate modern slavery in the cocoa industry has since reached the top rankings of chocolate brands in the Netherlands (and currently expands far beyond).

As stated in our Era of the Public, brands have to do what they’ve always done but more, they have to contribute to the public good – then, they can proudly fit into the sustainable brands cluster. And if they do it well, they will stay on the money too.

Where should you start? Brand purpose under the microscope

People already buy you for a reason, you know your category and your place in it. But your identity, your back story, is now becoming increasingly valuable. Consumers have recalibrated the measures of success and your purpose is no longer merely synonymous to the direct benefit of your product, but rather assessed in a wider societal and sustainability context.

Spotting brands that meaningfully drive future change has become a new kind of lockdown ‘birdwatching’. An authentic story, a non-homogenous message, a stance that goes beyond your category and relates to people’s needs, aspirations and values will create positive engagement and more people will buy and use your products. A more ominous expression of that truth is argued by Lary Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment firm: “Without a sense of purpose no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders” (in this case meaning buyers).

Learnings from a veteran in the field: Unilever

Doing business that has a wider positive impact is a perfect, valid objective and not a new one at all. Unilever was founded with the aim of making cleanliness commonplace and has since replaced cleanliness with sustainable living. Some would say they got lucky because, as a brand, they were purposeful from the outset. Others, that they masterfully found that sweet spot between what consumers care about and what they are doing.

Whether it’s about recycling, reducing packaging, transitioning into a circular economy or even about finding ways to capture carbon from where it already exists, all eyes turn to the big brands – the trusted brands – to make the bold moves. In the case of Unilever, they didn’t simply accept a challenge, they conceptualised and launched their Sustainable Living Plan back in 2010, being of the opinion that those who service their society today will thrive in the future. In the words of Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever: “Some people think greed is good. But over and over it’s proven that ultimately generosity is better.”

We’ve spoken to Catriona Ferris, Consumer Insight Director, Homecare Europe at Unilever, who offered us wisdom dust from within.

“Any innovation that is just sustainable is destined to be niche. To be mass you can be sustainable, but you also need to be affordable and accessible at the same time. It’s a balancing act,” Catriona says. Their ‘Cif bottle for life’ has solved a pain point, but within the sustainable context. They never stop conversing with the consumer, they never stop learning, evolvement comes when you are close to the consumer and is continuous.

Tactically, your internal connections are equally important to the ones you have with your consumers. The ideas might be incubated by your research and development function (R&D), but early on, everyone should get on board for those ideas to land. Here’s exactly what Unilever did:

  1. They branded it internally. Everyone in their home care team knows it’s about ‘clean future’ and are clear on the end goal (reduce the carbon footprint) and how to get there (using carbon from other sources, not just digging it up).
  2. Bold ambitions can only be unlocked if more people than just scientists get involved. Technology (R&D), Marketing and Consumer Insight teams partnered to develop and run the ‘clean future training programme’ across the whole organisation. Cross-functional collaboration became a reality.
  3. They used their brand tracking data to broadcast internally their growth stories and tackle any cost constraints. “Be very specific and transparent, if this is driving your brand image, if this will deliver growth, shout about it and do it with facts,” Catriona says. From sales representatives to supply chain managers, they all felt inspired, convinced, and leaned in.

Unilever announced that the brands in its portfolio that are most advanced in meeting corporate sustainability goals—its 28 “Sustainable Living Brands”—grew 69% faster than the rest of the business and produced 75% of company growth.

Your brand tracker is your secret weapon

“We all have a tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamppost – for support, but not for illumination.” It’s the raw truth delivered by David Ogilvy. But it doesn’t have to be like that. With a future-focused brand tracker you can light your path to sustainable growth. Here’s what it will enable you to do:

  • Understand the associations people already have with your brand (on social and environmental dimensions), your competitors and those in the adjacent categories.
  • Identify where you will be held accountable and where you are allowed to play. Your sector has a predisposition to champion specific issues. Even if you decide not to hero those, they will still need to be addressed. This will build your credibility.
  • Build your brand equity into sustainability, which is easier said than done. The first thing to check is whether your brand purpose fits your DNA, otherwise, you won’t enjoy the ripple effect of your activities all the way to Brand Power**. Our NeedScope for Purpose will give you practical direction to develop and differentiate your brand – ensuring it is grounded in a category need based on emotion and that your purpose flows naturally and authentically from this.
  • Make your consumers co-pilots on your journey. It will be a complex one and as you learn, you ought to share the knowledge with them, otherwise you will appear to be greenwashing. And as you do this, embrace the nuances among the different consumer groups (what are their main concerns and how far along they are in their individual journeys), then adapt your communication accordingly – turn people’s stories into action.
  • Find out what steps to take to become an enabler of action, close the value action gap*** and increase your penetration. Not many people will tell you that they don’t want to make sustainable choices. Success will come by helping people to align their behaviours and actions with their values and their beliefs.

  • Break down, and focus on, the unknowns and the expectations consumers have about your product. The learning will be continuous and doesn’t stop at launch.

Sustainability is a powerful emotive platform via which brands have the opportunity to re-engage consumers with a whole new story. If you are just starting, we can help you identify appropriate purpose territories and how to execute them. If you already know where you want to play, we can help you identify how to do that in a way that’s aligned to the rest of your brand.

Get in touch and we’d be delighted to have a chat about how we can help you achieve sustainable growth for your brand.


* Source: BG20: Global database of 20,000 brands built to understand the drivers of brand growth

**Brand Power: A prediction of the volume share a brand can command based on consumer predisposition to choose the brand over others

***Value action gap: The disparity between the state of desire to act and the action itself. Closing this gap represents a huge commercial opportunity (download our paper on ‘Realising the value of good intentions’)

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