Opportunities ahead for sustainability and purpose after a year of turmoil

Brand owners recognise the need and opportunity to have a clear purpose. But how can they do this authentically?
08 September 2021
Opportunities ahead with sustainable brand purpose
Sarah King
Sarah
King

Global Head of Brand, Insights Division

Mariana Peneva
Mariana
Peneva

Director, Strategic Consulting

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In 2020, the BrandZ™ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report was dominated by two interlinked topics: the impacts of COVID-19 and Sustainability. Much of the world was in a state of suspended animation and seemed to be holding its breath. A year on, the same topics remain high on the agenda, but some important developments have taken place.

Coronavirus accelerated many trends that were already present; for example, it is credited with driving a decade’s progress in ecommerce in a year. Localism received a significant boost as working from home became a new normal. Opinion remains divided, but the pivot online was sudden and effective. Some businesses have famously moved permanently to ‘wfh’ while others rejoice at the re-opening of offices.

The impact on consumer behaviour and attitudes

At the same time, it prompted some review of lifestyles and values, as our Barometer data showed. COVID-19 provided a vast behaviour change experiment in living, working, cooking, education, shopping, entertainment, socialising, exercise and more. Some of this will ebb away, associated with bad times and constraint. But other things will stick: spending time with our significant people/loved ones; considering our purchases; planning and self-sufficiency; and improved hygiene. This last action, a coping mechanism to combat the virus, has also brought huge and visible challenges to sustainability, as a wave of plastic and chemicals overwhelmed our immediate environments.

The resurgence of nature became an early meme and, for some, images of clean skies over industrial areas were striking. Not only has bio-diversity become a more prominent environmental topic but time spent outside during the pandemic proved to be important to mental health. In many countries, people have been leaving cities for greener pastures; estate agents have reported that a garden or access to a natural environment are now key search terms for buyers, as well as a spare room to work in.

Concern about environmental issues remain important during the pandemic

Has your opinion about environmental issues changed because of COVID-19?

Concern about environmental issues remain important during the pandemic 

Source: Kantar’s COVID-19 Barometer

COVID-19 also provided the background to renewed demands for social justice with tragic incidents of individual and collective trauma, such as we have seen following the death of George Floyd in the USA and issues of women’s safety that have come to the fore in the UK after Sarah Everard and Everyone’s Invited. The position of those who couldn’t work from home, many more of whom became sick, has been a salient feature of the pandemic, adding to a renewed sense of what is truly essential. Inclusion, equality and equity are urgent across a widening range of areas.

In all of this, what was the role of brands?

Brands that innovated to meet the change have prospered hugely. Everyday brands had a role as emblems of normality and reliability, and there was almost no indication in our data that people wanted to see less advertising. But it was perhaps in their role as businesses that brand owners did most, with celebrated examples of brewers and perfumiers turning their alcohol businesses to hand sanitiser, and luxury goods manufacturers turning their sewing machines to PPE. In truth, our COVID-19 Barometer suggests that people weren’t thinking about brands specifically, even as they appreciated their efforts. The first role of business was as an employer and then as a citizen. Brands, as one of the most salient faces of businesses, have always needed cultural relevance and, increasingly, if brands want to matter to their customers, they will need to take into account the wider public requirements that people now have of them.

This is what our colleague J. Walker Smith wrote about last year as the new marketing Era of the Public. Increasingly, brand owners recognise the need and the opportunity for their brands to discover an authentic purpose that will guide their decisions, enhance their meaningful difference, grow their brand power, and achieve positive impact in the world. Our model for this work is the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the closest thing the world has to a strategy for development and one that many businesses now use to frame their actions. It may be easier for a brand that is born with purpose than it is for long-established brands to do this, but all strong brands have a reason to exist, and the SDGs offer a wide scope of purposeful objectives in which brands can find additional strength and new sources of value with genuine alignment.

The other very significant thing that has happened is the return of the world’s largest economy to the Paris Agreement with serious intent; along with the dawning realisation that we now have only 9 years to contain runaway climate change and general populations beginning to recognise the emergency.

Businesses, financiers and brand owners, with their talent for innovation, enterprise and value creation are uniquely placed to contribute and to enable their customers to make the necessary changes. Their role will be vital. This is the moment for business that hasn’t yet recognised this imperative to do so. Genuine leadership is required and disruptive change too, but the opportunity is huge – both commercially (for revenue) and also reputationally, at a historic moment. In the context of climate action and net zero commitments, distinctions are already being drawn between those who understand the need to act now for 2030 and ‘2050ers’ who don’t yet have a plan.

Key takeaways

  1. Evolve your ‘reason to exist’ to stay relevant in the Era of the Public
  2. (Re)discover the authentic Purpose of your Brand
  3. Anchor your impact in the UN SDG Framework to enhance meaningfulness and grow Brand Power

Whatever your sustainability challenge, get in touch to discuss how we can help you meaningfully define and powerfully activate your sustainability strategy, and build brands with a clarity of purpose.

This article was originally published in Kantar BrandZ 2021 most valuable global brands.

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