Five Strategies for Building Your Ethical Brand

Fruitful strategy jpeg When communicating on the environment or climate change, whether you're a company or a nonprofit, brand is important.  Jennifer Rice suggests some brand-strategy rules when developing an ethical brand.

  • Do sustainability initiatives that support your brand as a whole.

Posted May 8, 2009

By Jennifer Rice, fruitful strategy

There’s been a lot of discussion about
elevating corporate responsibility to become a strategic driver of your
business. Most companies would like to benefit from their ethical
efforts in the form of increased customer attraction and loyalty, yet
few have figured out how to do it successfully. When marketing and PR
are relied on, it can often backfire in accusations of greenwashing.
The secret is to apply brand-strategy principles to build your ethical

Brand: Who you are, not what you say

First, let’s back up and define what a brand is. More than a logo, tagline or campaign, a brand is a promise delivered.
It’s no longer about marketing; it’s about co-creating your reputation
with your customers and managing perceptions through your actions. That
means your brand could be favorable or unfavorable, depending on how
you interact within your ecosystem and whether you’ve actively managed
your brand or not.

A brand strategy is, in essence, a
focused strategic platform that guides every aspect of the business. It
should incorporate 4Ds: desirable by customers, deliverable by the
company, distinctive from the competition, and durable over time. It’s
a blueprint for how you do business, as well as for the entire customer

Since brand is inherently about building a
reputation, it’s not a stretch to say that strategic CSR is all about
brand-building… not philanthropy or community programs. The latter are
among the tactics to be judiciously identified and tailored to support a desired outcome,
which should be to build a clear, consistent and believable reputation
among your constituents that engenders preference and loyalty. That
desired outcome informs the entire customer experience as well as how
you do business.

Five strategies for aligning brand with values

There are five brand strategy approaches that are directly relevant to building your ethical reputation.

Ethical Brand Strategy Options

Align with Brand Differentiator

Ideally your ethical initiatives will directly support your brand promise. Remember, a brand is a promise delivered
so consider what makes your brand unique from competitors and develop
key initiatives to support that. For example, one of Target’s
philanthropy programs is to support the arts and design, which directly
supports Target’s “affordable design” brand differentiator. Instead of
cutting your CSR programs during the downturn, consider shifting
resources from generic programs to those that support and drive not
just your category, but your brand.

Create an Ingredient Brand

Think Westin’s Heavenly Bed or, in the CSR space, Marks &
Spencer’s Plan A or GE’s Ecomagination. This is the ‘special sauce’
that makes your brand preferable to values-based buyers and employees.
Creating a brand for your ethical initiatives accomplishes several
important objectives:

  • Helps clarify for employees and customers your ethical value proposition
  • Makes it easier to allocate human and financial
    resources to your initiative (hint: assign a brand manager to own,
    drive and measure)
  • Serves as a growth platform for customer experiences, products and services
  • Elevates your social and environmental initiatives above me-too commodity status.

There are a few risks of goodwashing with this
approach, so be sure that everyone is committed to creating something
of unique value that’s completely aligned with the vision and values of
the parent brand. And any misstep by the parent brand may end up
discrediting the hard work done to build the ethical ingredient brand.

Create a Product Brand

If there are values-driven buyers
in your category (highly likely), consider launching a product just for
them. Clorox GreenWorks and BP Solar are good examples. Note that these
brands are tied closely to their parent brands, so don’t consider this
option unless the parent company is doing its part on the ethics front.
But a product brand is an excellent opportunity to help customers
experience your values and simultaneously boost the profit part of the
triple bottom line. Case in point, GreenWorks has now captured 42% of the natural cleaner category in a little over a year.

Create a New Sub-Brand

A separate brand (with its own customer experience, distribution
channels, etc.) that’s completely anchored on the triple-bottom line
puts a bit of distance between it and the parent company. Good examples
include Starwood’s Element or, through acquisition, Unilever’s Ben
& Jerry’s. Why use a sub-brand strategy?

  • To lead your category in capturing hearts and
    minds of values-oriented consumers without being saddled with baggage
    of the parent company
  • To minimize claims of greenwashing, as all actions of the sub-brand are (should be) congruent.
  • To help “turn the Titanic” and reposition the
    parent company as an ethical brand. The parent company can “borrow” the
    positive brand equity from the sub-brand while going through the
    process of cleaning up its act.

Acquisition is the easier route, but often the ethical brand gets flack for “selling out” if it’s not handled carefully,
and core values still need to be aligned. Building it yourself is
harder, but the benefits could easily outweigh the effort required.

Reposition the Brand

This option is especially important for companies
with a history of contributing to the problems of the planet rather
than the solutions. Formerly “evil” companies like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s
and BP have made great strides in redefining their brands as more
responsible. With a very large company, this is a process that takes
years and top-down dedicated effort to fundamentally change the essence
and ethos of the company. For a smaller brand it’s definitely easier.

No hard and fast rules

Please note that there are no easy answers or
guidelines here. The most appropriate approach for your company depends
on the unique combination of your customers, their expectations and
perceptions of your brand versus other options, the progress you’ve
made in the ethical realm, whether or not you actually have a clearly
defined brand promise, the commitment level from your executive team… I
could go on, but you get the point.

I’m happy to have a preliminary discussion with
you about the right approach and key considerations for your business;
just contact me at [email protected].

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