Plan A, an Orang-Utan and Sustainability

Posted on January 13, 2015

Marketers and ad agencies often overplay the sustainability card. It might be well meant but it causes more problems than it solves and requires a more balanced approach.

I have been involved in some way or another with the branding of sustainability since the late 1990s when I worked for one of the consultancies responsible for BP’s disingenuous ‘Beyond Petroleum’ strategy. Thankfully, there’s a lot more transparency these days –  sustainability is now a recognised business requirement and becoming a standard bottom line reporting mechanism. However, achieving a meaningful level of sustainability is a massive challenge for any business, especially during tough economic conditions when just staying in business is hard enough. It also has ramifications for how they communicate their sustainability progress to the wider world through an appropriate brand strategy.

Very few modern brands set out to deliberately mislead their customers anymore (the risks are too high) but the increasing demand for sustainable and values led business practice puts huge pressure on external communications to imply compliance. The result is often beautiful and emotive brand messages that have the best intentions but complicate the significant internal changes needed to substantiate them.

This is problematic on several levels, not least because of the lack of transparency, but because it obscures the very real difficulties faced by large corporates trying to embrace sustainability. Dressing up a brand with a sustainable facade can lead to the de-prioritisation of the internal work required to make genuinely meaningful progress. It risks portraying the message that the journey has been completed. It can also be confusing for customers and open up brands to accusations of cynical manipulation.

A case in point is Scottish and Southern Energy’s (SSE) latest ad campaign featuring a CGI orang-utan called Maya wandering around a city in amazement at the possibilities provided by energy. It has drawn plenty of criticism, no more so than by Ed Gillespie, one of the co-founders of the sustainability agency, Futerra, here. Gillespie goes for the jugular, accusing SSE of cynical manipulation, but I am more inclined to go with the lesser charge of trying to make a quick and impactful statement whilst under-estimating the challenge. I cannot speak for SSE in particular, but the marketers I know in the utility sector tend to be traditional, conservative and reflective of the cumbersome structures they work within. I suspect that they gave their ad agency, the undeniably smart Adam & Eve/DDB, a brief to develop a differentiated leadership position and found themselves under the spell of a team that can sell sand to the Arabs. Unfortunately though, it was probably the wrong brief. The result is a campaign that is detached, confusing and, frankly, weird.  What the heck has the rainforest and an orang-utan got to do with a utility company based in Scotland? It also detracts from the genuinely good work that SSE has done in tax transparency and paying a living wage, both which are important aspects of the sustainability/CSR mix and more relevant to customers. SSE is not a bad company and is trying to do the right thing, but it’s not a pioneer like Ecotricity or Good Energy either, and should consider a more appropriate approach to communicating its sustainability credentials.

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SSE’s orangutan in the city is confusing and, quite frankly, weird

At the other end of the scale there are other brands, such as Unilever and Marks and Spencer, who have the budget, expertise, operational ability and leadership to tackle the challenge properly. Unilever has Paul Polman, a visionary leader who has embedded sustainability at the heart of the organisation. Now, before you scoff, nobody’s arguing that Unilever is perfect. It still has a huge amount of work to do but in tackling the issue as publicly as it has so far, it is raising our expectations of everyone else, which can only be a good thing. Sustainability can’t be achieved overnight. International corporations are gigantic beasts that can’t be rushed, and nor can we afford for them to make mistakes or disengage from the process because of hostility from ideological pressure groups. We all need this to work.

In October last year I went to the Cheltenham Literature Festival to watch a debate between, amongst others, Leo Johnson, co-founder of Sustainable Finance (now part of PWC, ahem), and Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business (Plan A), at Marks and Spencer. What unfolded was an entertaining joust between the ideology of sustainability and the practicality of it with the man from M&S often having to defend perceived failures in corporate sustainability pointed out by the other panellists and members of the audience, none of whom have to actually execute anything. By the end of the session, it was tempting to get caught up in the utopian zeal and side with the idealists rather than the businessman. But that would have been wrong.

Fast forward to January and I find myself in Mike Barry’s office at the M&S HQ in Paddington with David Alexander, Global Director of One Young World, discussing the challenges of communicating sustainability. Mike had kindly offered to give us some time and, we hoped, provide a few insights from his own experience of leading and implementing the award winning Plan A. We weren’t disappointed. What transpired was a consummate lesson by a professional at the top of his game in marrying the demand for sustainability with the operational and commercial realities of an international business that employs thousands and interacts with millions.

Mike took us through the different stages of his own sustainability thinking and planning and, critically, their place in M&S’ business continuum. From the very first steps of starting the conversation internally and agreeing the business case, to footprint analysis, supply chain management, target setting, process change, innovation, future scoping and much more. Each one of these steps is a major undertaking and, from our perspective as brand strategists, requires its own relevant and engaging communications strategy for both internal and external audiences. There’s no catch all brand message. Furthermore, the steps are different depending on which company your talking about, and even different between sections of the same company. There is no sustainability master plan that can be applied universally across the business world. Plan A works for Marks and Spencer because it’s tailor made to do so.

We all agree that sustainability is important and I am the first to admit frustration at the apparent reluctance of large corporates to move quickly enough. However, we need to accept that these business have legacy structures, procedures, protocols and cultures that simply can’t be turned off and restarted under a new set of rules. What’s more, they are powerful influencers of what happens around them, and having them onside is preferable to them being disengaged. The simple fact is that sustainability has to be profitable or it won’t happen, and it is far too complicated to achieve without substantial disruption. It needs due diligence and detailed, long term planning across multiple levels.

So what does that mean for brand strategists and marketers? It means working more closely with our clients to understand where they are on the sustainability journey before committing them to campaigns that pander to customer demand above operational reality. There’s no shame in a client admitting they’re still on the journey, as long is they’re actually on it. It means developing responsible, actionable and meaningful messages that inspire staff to support their employers’ efforts whilst also demonstrating to customers that the company is working towards a more sustainable existence. It certainly doesn’t mean spinning a sustainability story that’s at odds with reality or implying that the job has been done. In this age of transparency, and the spotlight of social media, neither us or our clients can afford to be anything other than honest. It’s better to be on the right track making steady but meaningful progress than putting lipstick on a gorilla. Or an orang-utan.

(The image used for this post is by fotdmike and used with thanks through a Creative Commons licence)

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