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In finance, the term black swans refers to unforeseen disasters, events that are unpredictable, rare, and potentially catastrophic. The term was coined by essayist and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who argues that in order to learn from these events, we must resist simplistic explanations and embrace the complicated truths that might prevent future crises.
The work of John Elkington—the "godfather of sustainability"—evolves Taleb's notion. He sees black swan events as having the potential to engender green swans—dynamic reactions that chart new, transformative, and regenerative trajectories.
Many corporations have declared their commitment to more environmentally sustainable business practices, but fewer have made meaningful progress towards quantifiable goals. However, COVID's devastating effects may have triggered a moment of reckoning. Could the corporate response to COVID be a green swan, blazing a path toward brands mobilizing for the planet?
Over the past six months, I've hosted two Siegel+Gale roundtables on the Future of Branding (Replay available on my "How CMO's Commit" podcast). In total, I spoke to ten marketing leaders whose organizations are at varying levels of sustainability transformation, asking them what role marketing will take in this mobilization and how the events of the last year can provide a blueprint for initiatives to come. Their reflections showed remarkable alignment, suggesting there are five actions common to the brands that will emerge as vanguards.
Sustainability needs to become a foundational part of a brand's purpose and operations. Millennials and Gen Z demand purpose not only of the brands they purchase but also of their employers. Frank Cooper, Global CMO of BlackRock, thinks this may be one of the most powerful spurs to action: "What I think will push most leaders down this path more aggressively is that the best talent is demanding it. They're saying: I want to continue to make money...but I also want to feel like I'm contributing to something bigger than myself."
Brands can demonstrate this in their messaging but also in their operations. Catherine Keogh, Group Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Communication at Kerry, said, "our innovation strategy, sustainability strategy, and growth strategy are essentially one... It's not a department; it's a vision embedded across the organization."
Panelists highlighted their CEO's public and personal support for sustainability. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, announced in an investor letter his conviction that climate risk is investment risk. Ramon Laguarta, CEO of PepsiCo, is vocal about how he holds himself accountable for his environmental impact. Anders Eldrup, then the CEO of DONG Energy (now named Orsted), wrote an op-ed announcing the company's ambition to invert its ratio of green to brown energy to 85/15 by 2030.
Enthusiastic leadership is a powerful external symbol, but it's also key to a company's cultural shift toward more sustainable practices. Filip Engel, VP of Sustainability, Public Affairs, and Branding at Orsted, remarked: "Think about it...you suddenly say to the organization that what you do now—being best in the world at coal-fired power plants—you should now stop doing that. That is difficult to accept. It is part of people's identity." In cases like this, it's crucial that the CEO champions change and models desired behaviors.
The marketing leaders underscored the galvanizing effect of ambitious sustainability targets, such as the ratio swap achieved by Orsted. These CMOs emphasized that targets symbolize that things are not “business-as-usual”—as well as spark innovation.
Companies looking for measurable goals might turn to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, says Dan Thomas, Chief Communications Officer for the UN Global Compact. In fact, UN Global Compact can help them map their goals and identify benchmarks: “We take companies and lead them on a journey to help them embed those goals into their operating systems and give them an opportunity to measure their progress.”
No man—or corporation—is an island. Meg Galloway Goldthwaite, CMO of The Nature Conservancy, said, “we are not going to achieve goals on our own. We need to do so in collaboration." Such partnerships can be achieved in ways that ring true with your band, says Akshay Gupta, Director of Strategic Brand Marketing at Corning Gorilla Glass. He shared that his organization partnered early on with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, who even “advised on the brand creation.”
RB is already doing this. “We partner with external industry leaders to take some of the material associated with our packaging and turn it into material which can be used for construction...We've not restricted any of these activities only to RB brands, but we've opened it up to all of our competitor brands as well,” says Harish Phadke, business manager to the SVP of North American Health at RB.
These CMOs believe marketers have a vital role to play, translating complex scientific and economic realities into accessible insights and appealing propositions for consumers. Ciara Dilley, VP, Transform Brands & Portfolio Innovation at Frito Lay, a PepsiCo company, explained: "As marketers, we have an amazing opportunity to make sustainability understandable. We can bring sustainability into homes; we can help consumers take one small step forward."
DuPont Water Solutions did this in a creative way, partnering with the Brave Blue World Foundation—and a cast of Hollywood stars—on a Netflix documentary about innovative solutions to the globe's water crisis. "It's a compelling story of optimism and human spirit; that's what's so exciting about it," said Kimberly Kupiecki, Global Leader Sustainability, Advocacy, & Communications.
A better way to do business
COVID-19's human and economic costs were and are catastrophic—a black swan if ever there were one. However, humankind cannot afford for sorrow to be this pandemic's only lasting impact. Mark Hanna, CMO of Richline Group, was just one panelist to express that post-COVID, his "optimism is that we see a business community...committed to purposeful action and a better world."
The world's best companies are making bold moves to mitigate future disasters, finding ways to build sustainability into their bottom line and brand purpose. Grasping this "green swan" opportunity is no easy task, but trailblazing brand's experiences suggest the five actions detailed above can help bring about the kind of stakeholder consensus that powers transformation.