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Sustainable Thinking Applied: 10 Brands We Celebrate

Written by our own Vicky Bullen, CEO.

As businesses strive for brand success – they now know that it cannot be at the expense of the greater good. Sustainability is the subject keeping many CEOs up at night. Although there is no exact roadmap that will lead to the business nirvana of sustainable commerce, embracing sustainable thinking goes beyond environmentalism and CSR basics.

While the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not legally binding, governments are expected to own and establish national frameworks to achieve the 17 Goals by 2030. Coupled with this, private-sector enthusiasm for the SDGs is strong and growing and we see more and more companies translating interest into actions. Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria are an increasingly popular way for investors to evaluate companies in which they might want to invest and ESG stocks fared best in the COVID-19 slump.

While mainstream conversation about sustainability has historically focused mainly on the environmental perspective, the conversation now needs to embrace economic development and social equity to drive attention in today’s cultural climate.

So, to identify the 10 brands we want to celebrate for their sustainable thinking we have applied a framework consisting of five pillars that underpin our holistic approach to creating sustainable brands. These are: Walk the (purpose) talk; Strive for un-stereotypical ideas; Portray diversity; Design for inclusiveness and Eco-minded solutions. This is not an exercise based on detailed analytics, instead, we have used these guardrails to identify 10 brands that lead by example and set inspirational benchmarks across the five categories.

Category 1: Walk the (purpose) talk

Across the world, brands are at different stages on their paths to purpose – some are defining it, others are looking to embed it into what they do, and some are living it through actions, communications and initiatives. We want to celebrate those that are ticking all three boxes and using purpose as a true centre of gravity and growth driver:

Flawsome

Driven by their vision to inspire the world to reimagine its perception of waste, they transform imperfect fruit into tasty juices and are conquering the category one bottle at a time. We are particularly proud of our partnership with this truly sustainable brand. Not only do they have an amazing vision, but they also act upon their commitment by partnering with numerous charities. Enjoying 550% YoY growth, they were recently officially certified B Corp.

Aspiration

A bank that defines itself first and foremost as a community, second as a company. In their own words: A new kind of financial partner that puts our customers and their conscience first. Committed to turn every transaction into positive action they reforest whilst people shop, offer cashback on socially conscious spending and only lend their customers’ money to clean, planet-friendly projects.

Category 2: Tackling stereotypes 

Being vocal and acknowledging unconscious biases and stereotypes – these brands use their voice and presence to spread awareness and help overcome them.

Ben’s Original 

Mars rebranded its Uncle Ben’s rice range following criticism that the name and image promoted racial stereotyping. At the same time, they changed their purpose to be more inclusive: to create opportunities that offer everyone a seat at the table. As brand experts, we know how delicate any intervention on distinctive brand assets might be, so we praise Ben’s for taking the leap and changing its 70-year-old name and image. 

Bodyform 

Bodyform’s taboo-breaking journey began in 2017 when they replaced blue liquid with red ‘blood’ in its Blood Normal adverts and they’ve never stopped. Followed by Viva la Vulva and more recently Womb Stories, the brand is on a mission to confront and break taboos that hold women back and pushes against the misperceptions of shame and silence surrounding women’s bodies.

Category 3: Portray diversity 

These brands are on a mission to ensure their visual and verbal representation is always diverse, never single-minded, and always culturally relevant.

Google

Google used machine learning and appointed a task force to analyse diversity across all its communications, and used the findings to address any imbalances and misrepresentation as well as developing a training programme centred around representing diversity in communications for the brand – 90% of the team and 200 agency partners have taken this course. 

Yelp

Yelp created functionality that allowed businesses to identify as being black-owned and allow users to specifically search for black-owned businesses.

Category 4: Design for inclusiveness 

Designed with the needs of the minority in mind to generate a greater benefit for all, these brands have inclusive design close to their hearts.

Nike FlyEase

Shoes that are ‘hands-free’ and quick and easy to put on. The easy-entry designs expand access and unlock benefits for all athletes. “As we continue to push the limits of making athletes better, we also need to push the limits in terms of allowing all athletes to wear our product”, said Richard Ramsay, FlyEase Innovator.

Microsoft

Microsoft created a controller for the Xbox which can be used by anyone with limited mobility as research showed that one in three young disabled people had to stop playing video games due to their disability. 

Category 5: Eco-minded solutions 

Just as consumers do their part by reducing their energy use and recycling their waste, companies are working hard to make a difference too. These brands are building their reputation upon their commitment to the environment and inspiring more sustainable practices in their industries.

Lush

Reducing packaging is something Lush has been working on for many years but now the brand is pushing the bar even higher with its packaging-free Naked Shops. If shoppers want to check the ingredients in a product, Lush Lens, an AI product recognition tool, scans the product and then sends the information to the shopper’s smartphone. “From the very first day over 20 years ago, our products were naked, but now we see a bigger movement against plastic and against waste. Alongside that, we can now fill up a whole shop with skincare, body care, hair care and bath bombs, while still providing that five-star experience.”, explained Lush product inventor Alessandro Commisso.

Allbirds

The world’s most comfortable shoe is also totally planet-friendly. From shoelaces made from recycled water bottles to the sugarcane used to make the SweetFoam™ cushioned sole, Allbird’s sleek sneakers are sustainable from top to bottom. Its upper is either made from certified superfine Merino wool or TENCEL™ Lyocel, a sustainable tree fibre that cuts its carbon footprint by half.

We need ever more brands to move towards creating positive, visible, and meaningful relationships between a company’s performance and its impact on our planet, and to be brave enough to just shake things up.

Brands can be a force for good and brand design and communications are key drivers of change to connect them with the growing numbers of consumers looking for honest and transparent companies that have a positive impact.

These brands I’ve highlighted are just a starter for 10 and I’m grateful to know there are more each and every day applying their sustainability thinking to create a shift towards more conscious consumption patterns. For the sake of our planet and society, it’s time we all paused to celebrate this wonderful new breed of movers and shakers.

Article originally in CEO Today.

What AOL got right and wrong

The iconic internet 1.0 marque will be phased out as Verizon sells its media assets to Apollo Global Management.

If you were born anytime before the millenium, chances are you can still hear the screeching sound of an AOL dial-up connection booting on your desktop.

But the iconic America Online brand, the gateway to the web in its early days, is officially no more. The brand will be phased out in Verizon’s $5 billion fire sale of its media assets, consisting of AOL and Yahoo, to Apollo Global Management, announced Monday.

From now on AOL, which consists of digital media companies including HuffPost and TechCrunch, as well as a roll-up of early ad tech assets including Convertro and Millennial Media, will be bundled under the Yahoo brand. 

The AOL-Yahoo mash-up has undergone various brand iterations since both companies’ acquisitions by Verizon for a collective $9 billion in 2015 and 2017, respectively, (remember Oath?). Most recently the roll-up has simply been known as “Verizon Media.” 

Once a part of that mash-up was Tumblr, which Yahoo bought for $1.1 billion in 2013 and sold for a mere fraction — $3 million — to Automattic, which owns WordPress, in 2019.

While both Yahoo and AOL suffer from lost relevance on the modern internet, Apollo clearly sees more equity in the Yahoo brand. Yahoo even released a brand campaign featuring its new positioning just as the news of the sale broke.

A new era of the internet

Experts agree AOL is the obvious brand to put on the chopping block, as it has repeatedly tried and failed to distance itself from dial-up internet.

“The death of the AOL brand should come as no surprise to anyone,” said Daniel Binns, CEO of Interbrand NY. “Shedding the vestiges of dial-up internet has been a huge drag on the AOL brand, and the category it has played in has been disrupted several times by world-leading brands like Google and Apple.”

While AOL still has high brand recognition, it’s mostly from a nostalgia perspective, said Melanie McShane, senior director of strategy at Siegel + Gale. 

“AOL was one of the first internet super brands,” she said. “But they’ve been trading on that history for a long time and it’s had some diminishing returns. The things they are known for are not the things people are looking for.”

On the other hand, while many people have traded in their Yahoo email address for a Gmail account, the company’s finance, news and sports portals still maintain relevance. And building off of Yahoo’s brand is more economical than constructing a new brand altogether.

“We know how hard it is to build a net-new brand,” McShane said. “Yahoo hasn’t done a great job of keeping up with tech giants, but it has done a better job than AOL was able to.”

From a B2B perspective, Verizon Media built one of the largest ad tech companies in the market. But Yahoo hasn’t had the best history with acquisitions in the space. It must also consider how much appetite there is for its offering among consumers, and whether the brand is strong enough to attract great talent.

“When you’re known for one thing, it can be very resource intensive to try and stand for something else,” McShane said. “There will be a challenge around credibility that they can reinvent themselves again. They’ll have to have a purpose beyond printing profits from ads.”

What AOL got right and wrong

In addition to lack of innovation, AOL’s demise was preceded by a few poor branding decisions.

Most notable was the choice to stop using the AOL name for the company’s broadband offering after AOL bought Time Warner in 2000, as well as Verizon’s decision to invest in its own email offering over AOL’s, said Jenn Szekely, managing partner Coley Porter Bell U.S.

“The most critical mistake was not leveraging the AOL brand strengths to drive a comeback,” she added, pointing to companies like Apple, Netflix and Nintendo that were able to reinvent their original offerings to keep up with consumer demand.

But AOL didn’t get it all wrong. It was one of the first tech brands to nail sonic branding with its famous dial-up tone and “you’ve got mail!” greeting, an area where more companies are investing heavily. “AOL was one of the first technology brands to have its brand sound become famous,” Szekely said.

While most agree AOL’s relevance has waned, some branding experts are mourning the loss of a one-time giant.

“It’s a shame a brand that was so well known is basically being put to death,” Szekely said. “Many businesses would kill for the awareness that still exists with the AOL brand, as they would have to spend a fortune and a fair while to get there.”

McShane added: “If anything, it teaches us that time in tech goes very, very fast.”

Article originally by Campaign Live.

The Gucci Balenciaga debate

Branding experts, including our own Jenn Szekley, and analysts review and discuss the Gucci Balenciaga debate, looking at the project unveiled with the Aria collection.

MILAN — Arguably, never has a hacking job been as lauded as Gucci’s “incursion” into the Balenciaga brand.

Creative director Alessandro Michele presented his Aria collection for Gucci on Thursday, unveiling designs that pay tribute to Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, Guccifying the designer’s silhouettes and placing the two brands’ labels on a shiny, sequined pantsuit, for example. Michele told WWD that he and Gvasalia “really wanted to surprise viewers with these designs,” aiming to continue to experiment in “a dialogue with the outside world,” and feeling like “playing with possibly the biggest sacrilege,” blending distinctive elements and logos from two very recognizable brands, “getting out of the closed-in atelier. Creativity means dialogue, continuous experiment and freedom.”

How this will translate in production and distribution remains unanswered for the time being as Gucci on Friday said it was “really premature to speculate further on this ‘hacking project,’” underscoring that it was neither a collaboration nor a capsule. No matter — branding experts and analysts piled on the praise, basically defining the whole idea as “genius,” and giving their stamp of approval over the strategy behind it.

“Both being owned by Kering, it’s a win-win, and arguably an easier deal to structure being both in-house,” said Los Angelesbased lawyer Jeff Gluck, who specializes in intellectual property litigation. “I’m not aware of the deal structure but typically the IP is owned by the house, not the designer. I do think this is another example of rules being broken in a good way and industry norms becoming more unrestrained. I’m still waiting for that Nike x Adidas collaboration.”

The tie-up “brings additional desire to the Gucci brand,” said Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm. “This is an especially intelligent project, it’s subtler than co-branding. One brand is reworking the aesthetic code of another label, taking iconic shapes and molding them into something new. And both designers are disruptive. Alessandro sprinkled a good dose of pepper on Gucci.”

For all intents and purposes, he continued, these are Gucci products and the company, he believes, is “testing the waters, feeling the temperature” of the reaction to the products, and will then adjust and fine-tune the distribution, depending on the feedback, maybe channeling a few pieces to celebrities and influencers and then merchandising them for the larger public, perhaps through pop-ups or shops-in-shop. This tie-up is easier to manage for a company such as Gucci that can rely on a formidable retail network, he noted.

Ferreri said the amount of paperwork, red tape, contracts and negotiations between Gucci and Balenciaga had to be less than any other collaboration with an outside company, as they are both owned by Kering. “It would be great to see a Bamboo bag in the Bottega Veneta intrecciato,” he mused, speaking of another Kering brand.

Indeed, Ferreri underscored how this “hacking project” is in sync with remarks made in February by Kering CEO FrançoisHenri Pinault on increasing the number of in-store and digital merchandising events, pop-ups and pop-ins, capsule collections “and powerful creative collaborations” for Gucci, commenting on the label’s 10.3 percent drop in organic sales in the fourth quarter last year.

“Creativity in fashion and luxury is nourished by the constant changes in society’s attitudes, and by understanding the new needs and desires resulting from those changes, enabling creators to provide personal responses that are both surprising and relevant,” Pinault said on Thursday. “I have seen how their innovative, inclusive and iconoclastic visions are aligned with the expectations and desires of people today,” he said of Michele and Gvasalia. “Those visions are reflected not only in their creative offerings, but also in their ability to raise questions about our times and its conventions. The unique, creative experience witnessed [in the Aria collection] is a perfect example of their approach, and illustrates the extent to which creativity and freedom are linked at Kering.”

In an interview on Friday, Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, said Michele’s “hacking” brought the “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice of design appropriation into the open.

“It’s such an amazing, brave conceptual idea to do that — saying and assuming, OK, we’re all influenced by each other in a way, and fashion is an evolution of these kinds of influences. And I think they did it in a great way,” Gvasalia said.

“That idea immediately spoke to me because I felt it brings something new out there in terms of how brands see each other,” he added. “It was a more conceptual exchange.”

Marketing and communication adviser Paolo Landi also said this was a “beautiful idea,” but he believes the true added value of this operation is “immaterial or rather, the immaterial value by far surpasses the potential tangible value. The high conceptual content of the project brings to Gucci, but also to Balenciaga, an enormous intangible value, in terms of modernity of the company culture.”

He sees “the walls of competition being broken down. The rules of strategic positioning are overthrown, as two storied brands are joined together in the modernity of an offer that is disorienting.” The end-results are shared, he said, and the two companies become “even stronger, precisely because of the innovative character of the operation,” stimulating “a dialogue between two of the best talents today, bringing vitality in the universe of fashion, which is sometimes static.”

Landi compared the Gucci-Balenciaga project to “certain artistic partnerships in the past,” such as the 1620 “Martirio delle Sante Rufina e Seconda” in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, dubbed a “painting of the three hands,” because it was realized by three painters — Giovan Battista Cerano, Pier Francesco Morazzone and Giulio Cesare Procaccini. “But there are other examples where one painter, for example, creates the figures and the other the landscape,” said Landi.

The market “always rewards bravery and innovation, especially the financial markets, but I am convinced that also in terms of sales, these products will be successful because of the uniqueness of the event, which will probably be unrepeatable,” according to Landi. The value of this win-win strategy, paradoxically, would be even stronger if the two brands were not both owned by Kering, he concluded.

Analysts were also upbeat about the potential of the project. Equity analyst Fabio Cereda at Jefferies International Limited said the Aria collection was “one of Gucci’s best events — smart and a proper statement of intent in its centenary year. Kind of ‘don’t you forget about me’ on steroids.”

He defined the project with a brand under the same Kering umbrella “a genius idea” for Gucci, believing this “could be a test with scalability.” He also praised the selection of Bamboo bags presented on Thursday, which in a report earlier this month he said are “expected to resonate well with the European cluster in particular given the key heritage component,” seeing them as “a core driver of what we expect to see gradually improving metrics later this year.”

Luca Solca, senior research analyst, global luxury goods at Bernstein, believes the tie-up “is a good idea. Gucci especially needs to create a novelty effect in China with the young Chinese who have bought a lot of Alessandro Michele’s products. We are seeing an excellent reaction on Chinese social media and the collection seems really different, which is a good reason to buy it. Bravo Gucci.”

Vincenzo Di Sarli, president and founder of DMR Group, which focuses on monitoring, tracking and analyzing data, communication activities and public relations strategies for leading brands worldwide, concurred with Solca. In China, he said, consumers are always “rushing for the latest news,” and Di Sarli expects this project to be successful in the region.

He also sees it as “a step forward in fashion.” While leveraging synergies with Kering, Michele succeeded in bringing novelty, foregoing any kind of rivalry with another designer, on the contrary pairing with a young and buzzy designer. “It’s a genius idea because both brands are within the same group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened with more Kering labels.”

“It’s a sign of the times, an evolution, young people want new things to differentiate themselves, there’s more and more research and communication. A few years ago, who would have imagined Chiara Ferragni joining Tod’s as board member?” he said, referring to the recent appointment of the digital entrepreneur. “Content constantly evolves, young people are thirsty for news, the mobile phone is a window on the world and everyone is always at the window.”

The COVID-19 pandemic “has closed an era and opened another one, with new revolutionary phenomena taking place, and fashion reflects what will happen in the future.” Di Sarli also underscored that “there is a great communication project behind this launch, it takes very little to make a mistake, but they are genius at communicating and have caught our attention.”

Rebecca Robins, chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand, also pointed to the element of novelty. “Collaborations are taking new shapes and forms in the industry, from the open collaboration model of Moncler Genius, to the co-creative leadership at Prada. Both brands are well known for ‘iconic’ brand tangos, most recently with Gucci x The North Face, and Balenciaga x Crocs. It’s not a surprising move for Gucci, as a brand that’s been breaking boundaries and defining its own rules and playbook for some time, with Alessandro Michele even creating his own lexicon for collections.”

Collaboration might not be the right word for this current Balenciaga/Gucci combination, said Jenn Szekely, managing partner at Coley Porter Bell (U.S.), but “where we are in today’s market a collaboration can be a desirable thing for customers of these brands. The key is to make sure it is a 1+1=3 equation, where they offer something unique that captures the essence of both brands, instead of a copy and paste, and then they will create real desire and command a price premium above their current price points.”

Szekely said that, from a branding perspective, “we are getting more and more inquiries to help companies determine the optimal relationship between two brands as these partnerships proliferate. There a variety of ways these brands can go to market (co-branded, one leads versus the other, one is an ingredient within another) and determining the right go-to market approach is a critical part of launching these collaborations.”

Original publication featured on WDD.