The role of environmentalism in modern consumer brands

November 7, 2019

Patagonia is a brand that is so eco-friendly their CEO would rather teach you how to repair your fleece than sell you a new one. As a certified B Corp, their brand promise is built on environmental activism, placing business philanthropy at least on par with profits. At The North Face, on the other hand, they believe “the best way to be sustainable is to make product[s] that would last a lifetime.” As a result, their brand promise is focused on innovation and durability.

We view a brand promise as the core idea that unifies your brand. It is a distillation of your brand positioning, which is in turn built on a foundation of positioning attributes. These attributes range from foundational – meaning you must have them simply to be in your industry – to differentiating – meaning they are distinctive and set you apart from your competition. These elements, collectively your “brand platform”, are internal but drive the outward expression of your brand – including in marketing communications.

This means that while we may not be able to see the brand platforms for Patagonia and The North Face, we can infer certain priorities based on their external communications including websites, advertising and press interviews, among other things. For both brands, environmentalism / sustainability is present in their communications, but it plays a very different role for each.

For The North Face, environmentalism seems to be a foundational attribute. Sustainability is important to the brand – for example, “Protect” is one of their three core tenets of corporate responsibility, alongside “Product” and “Empower.” However, with so many other outdoor and sportswear companies focusing on their environmental credentials, The North Face feels they need something more. For them, that “something more” is making the product the hero – but sustainability still gets its play, with the idea of creating less waste implicit in their claims about durability.

For Patagonia, on the other hand, their environmental mission is their prime differentiating attribute. In the words of the founder’s nephew, “There was a strong sense from the beginning of wanting to protect the wild places.” Their “Provisions” line of sustainable food, a focus on protecting their supply chain and “Patagonia Action Works” – a network to connect individuals with grassroots environmental activists – are just some of the ways they demonstrate their dedication to corporate stewardship.

Patagonia is not alone in this trend. It is becoming increasingly common to hear brands talking about their “purpose,” beyond delivering shareholder value – at Cannes Lion 2019 the topic was discussed extensively by top brands including Unilever and P&G. The key here is not to view it as an either/or proposition –brands are seeing that authentically committing to a higher purpose can actually increase revenue from socially-minded consumers who want to reward like-minded corporations. But that word, “authentically” is pivotal – if brands are talking the talk but not walking the walk consumers will notice.

Grappling with the role of environmentalism is not a new struggle for brands, and particularly consumer brands that generate “stuff.” As far back as 1987 the U.N. published a report opining on how corporations could reconcile sustainability and development. The issue has certainly gained more attention in modern times with Millennial – and now Gen Z – influencers increasingly holding brands accountable for their operations. Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) is becoming a byword from boardrooms to trading desks, and instances of corporations behaving badly can always be counted on to blow up social media.

What all this tells us is, in today’s culture no modern consumer brand can afford to ignore its environmental footprint – even those brands whose “purpose” lies outside sustainability. However, it is important that you approach the topic in a way that is authentic to your brand and credible to stakeholders, both internal and external. As the successes of both Patagonia and The North Face clearly demonstrate, there is no one right way to incorporate environmental sustainability into a brand platform.

About the author

Laura Scharf is an experienced strategist who has played an integral part in (re)branding and activating dozens of brands. From leading discovery—including IDIs and competitive audits—to crafting authentic, differentiating positions to defining architecture and messaging, she brings creative problem-solving and grace under pressure to all her projects. Current clients include Edwards Lifesciences, Gore, Mastercard, ACA Compliance Group, Hartford Steam Boilers and Trinity, among others.

Before joining Tenet, Laura was a strategic account director at Starfish and a brand strategist at TippingGardner. Her expertise spans B2B, B2C, and non-profit with a particular focus in professional services. She has an MBA from the Leonard N. Stern School of Business at New York University.

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