Why brand your plan? Reasons to put a name to your sustainability strategy

27 04 2011

I was recently asked to participate in one of those phone surveys for a leading technology business and comment on the branding of their sustainability strategy.  It led me to think how common it is now becoming for leading corporates to create such high profile reputational brands. And from my experience of transformational change I can think of a number of good reasons for doing so.

Ashridge’s current research into organisational approaches to embedding sustainability has already produced a number of exciting insights and highlighting some effective trends, one of which is this increasing propensity to brand sustainability strategies.  Since M&S leapt to public attention with Plan A, other high profile branded strategies have followed, such as Unilever’s recently published Sustainable Living Plan, Sky’s Bigger Picture and O2’s Think Big. Putting a name to what can otherwise be a hard to  fathom concept offers a number of advantages.

Here are my top five:

1 Branding your sustainability strategy provides coherence. It demonstrates a joined-up, visionary and (the clue’s in the word) strategic approach to responsible business, providing a memorable umbrella under which many initiatives can be affiliated, particularly useful given the diversity of project scale and focus that can be categorized as sustainability

2 It makes budgeting and investment decisions easier because there is clarity about what is and isn’t strategic and what directly contributes to the vision and espoused purpose

3 It is easier to engage employees and galvanise action around a visible intent with a slogan. A branded strategy has the hallmark of senior level blessing as well as offering a touchstone for corporate values (far more tangible than a list of values on a mouse-mat) and it has an emancipatory edge. Employees won’t need to ask permission so readily if they know their behaviours are in tune with the espoused intent

4 To the external world the brand shows not only serious engagement but also invites other stakeholders – customers, suppliers, indeed the whole supply chain – to get on board and participate. It enables business to reposition itself as socially-aware enterprise with the public and foster the ‘shared value’ between business and society that Michael Porter is now advocating. Crucially it supports greater transparency and accountability

5 It makes the job of managing such a comprehensive transformational change programme easier.  The diverse requirements of re-writing people strategies, innovating for new technologies, writing new policies and procedures, let alone shifting behaviour, mindset and deeply rooted habitual norms, can be aligned and project managed around such a visible and exciting point of focus.

If there is one drawback, it is that sustainability is always project, never finished accomplishment.  So whereas the project slogans may get tired and the printed posters fade, the work of creating sustainable enterprise continues indefinitely (isn’t that a common definition after all?). As InterfaceFlor have discovered, after 15 years of Mission Zero, there is still a long way to climb to achieve zero impact.

So, for branded strategies to work at their best, we have to keep refreshing the vision, checking the course and most of all, continue to positively engage, internally and externally, to build the organisations that reflect the reputational brand identities we espouse.

Alexandra Stubbings