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Futureproofing Your Brand? Start By Stopping.

Photo credit: Taylor Guitars

I had a refreshingly candid conversation with Bob Taylor the other day.

Taylor’s company, Taylor Guitars, personifies new thinking and engineering in the age-old craft of guitar building. I play a Taylor, and can enthusiastically vouch for the company’s approach.

What Bob Taylor and I talked about, however, had nothing to do with making music. Our topic was how to make sustainability work better for business.

What prompted the conversation was Taylor’s recent acquisition of an ebony mill in Cameroon. Was this a hedge against diminishing worldwide supplies of ebony? Was it an effort to stabilize prices – an echo of Delta Airlines’ recent purchase of a fuel refinery? Turns out, the move was more about pragmatically introducing sustainability into the supply chain. And, of particular interest to me, building a new brand of responsibility.

Stop. And Understand.

Black ebony is a prized material for guitar fretboards. It’s also on the verge of extinction. Alarmed by the diminishing supply of this wood, Taylor visited ebony loggers in Cameroon – the last legal ebony harvesting site in the world. What he saw there defied logic. The harvesters were unable to see whether an ebony tree would produce rich black wood, or an ‘inferior’ striated variety, unless they first cut down the tree.

When he asked them how many trees they felled before finding one that produced the desired jet black wood, they answered ten. And the ten trees that had been needlessly felled were left to rot, unsaleable to agents.

This was Taylor’s first ‘a-ha’ moment. The striated wood made acoustically and ergonomically perfect fretboards. In fact, Taylor had been using striated ebony for his guitars since starting his company – initially as a cost-saving measure. Now, if other leading guitar brands could be convinced to use this wood, the ebony shortage would suddenly become much less dire.

“Our VP of marketing says the difference between a good guitar and a great guitar is the story,” recounts Taylor. “What I began to understand is that I was in the position – as a respected guitar manufacturer – to shape the market, and turn the striated ebony story into something consumers wanted.”

Stop. And Resist Quick Solutions.

Prior to his Cameroon trips, Taylor had contemplated feedback from consumers recommending his company support tree replanting programs in areas stripped of ebony. It was a simple solution that would, in theory, provide a sustainable supply of the prized wood. It would also make for a wonderful corporate sustainability story.

In reality, however, the idea was less than ideal.

“In places like Cameroon, it’s possible to do almost anything with a bribe. And impossible to do almost anything without a bribe,” Taylor says. “Planting trees in situations like this would simply fuel illegal harvesting, and do nothing to make the wood supply more sustainable.”

Taylor came to understand the solution was more complex. With the company’s purchase of the mill, the full extent of that complexity was revealed.

“We quickly grasped there were fundamental issues that needed to be addressed – contradictory laws and lumber accounting systems, for example,” says Taylor. “We had to start by helping fix the system, demonstrating by example that doing business honestly – taxing us and auditing us – was in the government’s best interest.”

Taylor is quick to point out that his company’s approach has, of necessity, been methodical rather than splashy. “We aren’t planting trees – yet. We’re working first to stop the illegal harvest, and get a better understanding of how many trees there actually are. Our focus is ensuring the harvest is legal, and then sustainable. It’s a long-term strategy that might not make a great sound bite. But ultimately, it will help us save our own industry, and the ebony species in Cameroon.”

Start Innovating.

Taylor’s deep understanding of the ebony supply chain and his pioneering work in making striated ebony desirable to consumers is a lesson in creating sustainable business – and brands.

Raphael Bemporad and Jeffrey Hollender write in Fast Company that looking at and understanding whole systems is key to creating successful, sustainable innovation, instead of solutions that make Western consumers feel good but do nothing to correct underlying problems. This deeper thinking builds resilient, futureproof brands. And moves us closer to a sustainable business model.

Well played, Bob Taylor.

Marc Stoiber is a creative director who helps clients build resilient, futureproof brands. He previously was head of green innovation at Maddock Douglas, a leading US innovation firm; president and founder of Change, a green brand agency; national creative director… [Read more about Marc Stoiber]

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