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Brand Purpose Authenticity Brand Strategy

Why brands must aim for authenticity to hit their sustainability targets

By Doris Lee, ESG analyst

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February 23, 2023 | 12 min read

Sustainability initiatives must align with a clear brand purpose to be impactful, achievable and communicated authentically, according to Tag's Doris Lee (ESG analyst) and Ellie Blott (marketing & communications coordinator). Here they give actionable advice on how brands can achieve this, looking to the brands leading the way for inspiration.

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With such high stakes for the planet, it is essential for businesses to become sustainable in both their internal practices and their external output. To achieve this, sustainability initiatives should be aligned with a clear vision and purpose, to which targets can be built upon. However, ensuring that this purpose is authentic to the ethos of the brand is critical to creating sustainability goals that are impactful, achievable, and clearly communicated to consumers.

Brands should be looking to invest in a cross-departmental approach from the beginning of the goal setting process, implementing company-wide transparency. Internal sustainability experts must collaborate across the business, such as with brand marketers who play an important role in ensuring sustainability goals are rooted in brand identity and are communicated authentically. Sustainability targets that are true to a company’s ethos can then be leveraged to attract the best talent, who’s own values are synchronised with the brand and can in turn improve overall business performance.

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In this article, we investigate why creating sustainability targets that create the ability to achieve actual results, hinges on brands identifying an authentic business purpose first and foremost.

Broad statements demonstrate a disconnect

Some businesses are missing the mark when communicating sustainability initiatives to consumers and are demonstrating a disconnect from brand purpose. In a bid to establish a commitment to the sustainability cause, it appears that many brands are delivering generic, and often heavily weighted statements. According to Robin Hicks for Eco-Business, for the phrase ‘sustainability is in our DNA’ there are 53,900 Google search results, whilst ‘sustainability is at the heart of everything we do’ has 153,000.

These are staggering numbers for such bold statements. To have sustainability literally in the business’ DNA, suggests that sustainability is part of the company’s entire structure, interwoven into every sector. What the generic nature of these statements may actually reveal is a disconnect between the sustainability targets being created and the brand’s core ethos. This disconnect at the business strategy level is then permeating the external communication front line with blanket statements that lose any valuable meaning. Businesses need to ensure that brand identity and sustainability strategy are intertwined from the very beginning, before targets are even created.

Targets need to be authentic and purpose driven

When setting targets for sustainability, brands should have an authenticity-first approach, ensuring that the business strategy is aligned with the brands’ values.

For some companies, sustainability really is in their DNA and is the business purpose that they lead with. New Zealand born beauty brand Ethique sets out to revolutionize haircare and beauty products, transforming liquid products into solid bars to eliminate plastic packaging. The brand’s anti-plastic ethos drives everything the brand does, from how the product is made and its ingredients, to how it is shipped and marketed. The brand champions sustainability above all else, even providing advice to customers looking to be more eco-friendly at the expense of making more sales.

Centring the business around its plastic-free purpose, Ethique can create, not only a product that is undeniably sustainable, but also a clear focus for the whole business model. The plastic-free approach from Ethique leads the rest of the brand’s initiatives.

Where sustainability is not at the centre of a brand’s ethos, the company should look to identify their authentic business purpose first and then build a link between the purpose and sustainability goals. For Nespresso, pushing ‘the boundaries of what a unique coffee experience can be’ is ‘in [their] DNA’, rather than sustainability. The coffee retailer leads with coffee excellence as their business purpose and builds out sustainability initiatives that improve and innovate their products and processes to have the most impact. For example, Nespresso pods could be a huge waste issue if not recycled or repurposed properly. Unlike Ethique, who’s main purpose is creating plastic-free products, Nespresso looks for alternative solutions that feel genuine to the brand, founding circular coffee initiatives and providing recycling solutions to consumers.

Taking their brand authenticity one step further, Nespresso has collaborated with Italian footwear brand Ash to create sustainable shoes from recycled coffee capsules and grounds. Through this partnership, Nespresso outsources a sustainable solution that simultaneously provides additional value through the creation of an innovative and unique product, whilst allowing Nespresso to stick to what they do best: making great coffee. The partnership and sustainability initiative therefore feels genuine and authentic to the brand. Brands looking to create authentically sustainable solutions should ensure that sustainability initiatives have a clear direction by linking back goals to the original business purpose.

Transparency across the business

Implementing transparency across the business is key to ensuring that sustainability goals are aligned with the business purpose from the start. By tracking and analysing sustainability data and building a cross-departmental processes, businesses can audit their company ensure that targets are conceived at an achievable level and goals are integrated across the whole company.

Data analysis plays a huge part in any goal setting, ensuring that clear avenues for improvement can be identified. Automation technology can be used to track and break down existing sustainability data to analyse past achievements. This data can then be leveraged to provide an accurate baseline, which in turn will help to set realistic goals and progressive targets for the future. Science Based Targets can then be used as a guidance resource for how businesses can create metrics on sustainability, with standards set in terms of an agreed index of targets.

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Businesses should step away from a siloed departmental approach when it comes to sustainability goal setting with sustainability experts working across the whole business to ensure that targets are met in every sector. One person cannot create a huge amount of change working alone, workshops and knowledge-sharing initiatives can ensure that all departments are equipped to make an impact.

Through a cross-departmental approach, experts from other sectors can support sustainability initiatives from all angles to produce holistic results. Brand marketers can be enlisted to ensure that the goals being set, based on data collected and analysis by sustainability experts, are authentic and true to the brand, by ensuring key focuses are aligned with the brand ethos. With visibility across the whole process, brand marketers can then ensure that key targets, ideas, and initiatives are communicated in a transparent and accurate way to both internal and external audiences.

Communicating goals with purpose

Having established an authentic purpose with clearly linked sustainability targets, and achieved transparency across the business, brands should ensure that their goals are clearly communicated to consumers, to prevent generic statements from causing misinterpretation or being accused of greenwashing.

Fashion retailer, GANNI, is direct and upfront about their sustainability goals. Acknowledging that fashion is inherently unsustainable, their annual report goes into great depth about the sustainability of sourcing within their supply chains and shows transparency in communicating sustainability goals and actions. Their website demonstrates come of the sustainability goals and initiatives they have already achieved a list of 10 bitesize snippets. The page simultaneously reinforces GANNI’s sustainability strategy in a clear and concise way, whilst educating its consumers.

Brand marketers should work closely with sustainability experts to strip back the complexities of the issues into digestible nuggets of information that consumers can understand. Marketers and communications experts should be bridging the gap between the sustainability goals themselves and the information that the consumer receives.

Clear and authentic sustainability targets help to find the right talent

Due to the complexity and intensity of work, sustainability is no longer something that can be simply bolted on to existing roles. Ensuring that authentic sustainability goals are met is key to attracting the right talent.

Brands are actively looking to expand their sustainability talent pool. We have seen this occurring through the rise of the CSO (chief sustainability officer) position amongst businesses, whose core responsibility is to oversee sustainability across the business. The rise of this role additionally highlights the need for an interdepartmental approach, as the CSO is required to dip into every department to ensure sustainability is being upheld across the board, and that sustainability is integrated into every part of the business.

Employees have more expectations for businesses than just personal benefits, they are looking for a business they share values with. According to a recent survey, 86% of workers are saying that ‘it’s important to work for an employer with values that align with their own’. In order to attract the best talent, businesses need to be clearly communicating what their sustainability priorities are. By having authentic goals that mirror the company’s values, businesses are able to attract the best talent who are synergised with the businesses’ targets.

Conclusion

Leading sustainability initiatives with a blinkered sustainability-first mindset is holding businesses back from creating purposeful targets that generate meaningful impact. Unless sustainability is a core focus for the brand, businesses need to be looking internally to what their true authentic purpose is and constructing focused targets from there.

Cross-departmental collaboration is essential to ensuring that the authentic purpose and sustainability targets are linked together and integrated across the entire business journey, for connected sustainability initiatives that are consciously communicated to internal teams, external consumers, and prospective talent. With a focused, authentic approach, businesses can begin to implement real sustainability change.

Brand Purpose Authenticity Brand Strategy

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