Six principles that brands must follow to survive

As pressure mounts on the world's resources, brands must reconfigure themselves to be sustainable citizens.

J Walker Smith: executive chairman of The Futures Company
J Walker Smith: executive chairman of The Futures Company

More and less are on a collision course. Already, we are testing the limits of water, food, energy and climate. Another billion people are expected to exist by 2030, which will test global capacities even further. More is needed for the next leap forward in global wellbeing, yet if things keep going along the same old lines, there will be less to go around.

‘Business as usual’ is fast becoming a bygone relic of a time when limits mattered little. As American writer and political activist Susan Sontag wrote in the 1970s, established ways of managing brands have been "cannibalized by progress".

Alarms about global warming offer, perhaps, the starkest evidence of the necessity for a new way forward. The latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change catalogues a number of imminent threats for which the world is "ill-prepared".

Strange bedfellows of conservatives and liberals, military strategists and environmental activists, and billionaires and NGOs are coming together in a call for action. Former Goldman Sachs head and George W Bush’s Treasury secretary Henry Paulson cautioned in a recent New York Times op-ed that we are in the middle of a climate bubble just as perilous as the credit bubble that brought the global economy to its knees.

Sustainability journey
The imperative for brands goes well beyond the customary considerations of marketing’s ‘four Ps’. It is about the very foundation on which brands do business.

In a soon-to-be-released Future Perspective white paper, entitled The 21st Century Business, Andrew Curry, director and global resources knowledge lead at The Futures Company, and Jules Peck, founding partner at Flourishing Enterprise and founding member of Jericho Chambers, trace the sustainability journey on which businesses the world over are now embarked. It begins with an internal focus on things companies can control, like the four Ps, and ends with an external focus on the ways in which business models must be "reconfigured" if brands are to survive, much less thrive, in "a world of increasingly saturated markets".

Curry and Peck specify six necessary shifts:

1 From disconnected to networked Businesses must be less driven by functional silos that work against the integrated information and comms systems needed to match the growing complexity of the marketplace.

2 From closed to open Businesses must move beyond conventions of exclusive ownership and find competitive advantage in porous boundaries that facilitate listening, sharing and responding to external change.

3 From fixed to fluid Businesses must drop fixed, inward-looking monitoring, control and direction, and find a rhythm of budgeting and planning that is more in synch with the fast-changing outside world.

4 From volume to value Businesses must continue the long-term shift away from mass production toward targeted offerings with innovative products and processes that require less mass and deliver more value.

5 From risk to opportunity Businesses must quit thinking of the external environment, including regulations, as a series of threats and look for clues in limits about the innovations valued most by society.

6 From consumer to citizen Businesses must understand customers in the total context of their lives and deliver against needs that reflect this broader view of people as citizens, not just consumers.

These six principles point directly to the first thing brands must do. Put consumerism in the context of citizenry. Otherwise, brands will lose relevance and credibility.

Psychiatrist and cultural observer Robert Jay Lifton describes a "climate swerve" at work today in public opinion about global warming. Growing awareness of risks and dangers is chipping away the last vestiges of complacency. People feel vulnerable. Thus, as Lifton observes, people are questioning whether they can continue to use and do the things that have put the planet at risk.

Firms such as Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ford and P&G, among others, have made sustainability central to their missions, operations and investments. They recognise that it is not about old brands consumed in new ways, but about remaking brands anew to fit the requisite duties of sustainable citizenship. It is about a new model for 21st century business.

J Walker Smith is executive chairman of The Futures Company

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