Sounds harsh? Well, very possibly. But after researching more than 100 companies and their brands worldwide, and speaking to CEOs and CMOs on issues around sustainability, sustainable development and brand relevance, I genuinely believe brands have taken a wrong turn: that rather than remaining slavishly devoted to reporting sustainability, brands have a far more important – a far more exciting – role to play in helping us all move towards becoming more sustainable in our lifestyles. And I should add, that at the same time as potentially bringing about mass-scale consumer behaviour change, this opportunity for brands could also net considerable, and durable benefits for their corporate guardians.
After such a build-up, the argument is pretty simple. Brands should ignore sustainability issues, as these are just symptoms of a deeper underlying cause. That underlying cause is a collapse in our collective social capital.
Social capital broadly refers to the stocks of dialogue, shared thinking and trust that swirls around us, whether it’s in our families, at work, in the community, or across the country. I talk a bit more about social capital here, and we go to great lengths to explain it in our new book Brand Valued, but the point to make is that social capital and sustainability are joined at the hip. Because when social capital is low, then it becomes all too easy to marginalise voices and externalise costs. Conversely, when social capital is high, then these voices are heard, and these costs are recognised. In other words, changes to our levels of social capital either create – or eliminate – unsustainable practices. So rather than trying to fix the issue once the issue is in play, focusing on social capital – the operating system of our social system – allows us to stop the issue even appearing.
Seeing the challenges we face from a social capital perspective, rather than a strict sustainability perspective is really a very good thing for brands, because brands are naturally in the business of building social capital. If social capital represents the ‘conductivity’ of society, then the greater the levels of social capital, the more effective brands can be in engaging their constituents.
But here’s the issue. It’s not just low social capital that creates problems in the system; it’s also lopsided or imbalanced social capital. Social capital comes in several flavours, and if we look back over the history of brands we can see they’ve excelled at creating one form: bonding capital. Bonding capital is literally your comfort zone: it’s typified by people like you, doing the things you like to do, when you want to do it. Bonding capital is exclusive, private and can end up being intoxicating. Sound familiar? It should do – it’s the basis of brand loyalty. Too much bonding capital – the ‘engine bolts’ in society – pushes out linking and bridging capital – the ‘engine oil’ in society. And it doesn’t take much to imagine what happens to the moving parts in society when there’s no oil in the system. It seizes. We seize.
The good news is that from all the research we’ve carried out it seems we are slowly freeing ourselves from this collective seizure. If the tail end of the twentieth century ran with a strap line of “I Want,” this century’s first draft is reading “I Belong.” Social capital is on the rise.
From a brand perspective, this is big news. Because brands represent the most efficient, ingenious and indefatigable engines of social capital we have at our disposal. It’s as if they were made for the job – which of course they were, albeit in a different era, with different demands. Brands were fast – opportunistic even – in responding to the changes at the end of World War II, but as the landscape alters again on such a scale, can they be as agile? Some, maybe. But not all.
In creating richer and more balanced social capital, brands have the opportunity to both nudge their corporate guardians closer to a long-term and durable competitive advantage, and us all towards more sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles. Robert Putnam and others talk about the benefits to societies rich in social capital, and we extend that thesis to business advantage: faster and more frequent dialogue, greater innovation, access to tacit knowledge, trust, loyalty, agility – the list goes on.
When it comes to nudging us towards more sustainable lifestyles, the role brands play in enriching social capital is crucial. Brands – as emotion-savvy, story-telling mavens – have the power to convene communities. Within communities – including brand communities – people behave differently. Just like conventional economics considers us rational, individual utility-maximising creatures, so conventional consumer psychology considers us lone, information-processing, utility-hunters. Which of course we’re not: David Brooks makes this case elegantly in The Social Animal. When operating in communities – in other words environments where we are visible, where social identity is important, and reciprocity is expected amongst members, there’s a whole slew of new attitudes, intentions and behaviours that emerge. Whether it’s because it’s what we genuinely think is right (an intrapsychical motivation) or whether it’s because we want to be seen to be thinking it’s right (impressions management) the immutable truth is that being within a community makes us all behave more prosocially. Which has to be good news, as prosocial behaviour is a crucial determinant of sustainable behaviour.
More than that, in dense and rich communities, where a behaviour is deemed by that community to be prosocial (or sustainable) in nature, there’s an emerging argument that says rebadging that behaviour as such will re-form positive attitudes towards that and other similarly badged behaviours in the future. In other words, when we get into a community environment, the opportunities to engage consumers in prosocial behaviour – and prosocial attitudes – increase dramatically, with consumers getting more out of the experience as a result. In short, communities around brands create an environment where it’s not a case of a niche group of consumers doing what they think they should do, but rather all consumers doing what they know they want to do.
So back to the opening challenge of this article: that brands should walk away from sustainability. I stand by it, because I think there’s so much more a progressive brand can do in this climate; that the opportunity to do more is too great to pass up. And to reiterate, this is an opportunity to not only make a valued contribution to our collective need to transition to more sustainable lifestyles when we need it most, but to also secure a long-lasting competitive advantage for the firm.
Guy Champniss is co-author of ‘Brand Valued: How socially valued brands hold the key to a sustainable future and business success.’ (Wiley & Sons, June 2011). Guy is an independent strategy and brand consultant, and Managing Director of Meltwater Consulting, a London-based boutique brand strategy agency, focusing on sustainability and prosocial consumer behaviour. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.