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Q&A: Kate Cox - Head of Strategy, Havas Media

This is the third in a series of posts detailing responses to a Q&A we've conducted with members of the Sustainable Brands community on a variety of issues at hand.

Q: The UK and European countries have been leaders in many ways, in recognizing and responding to impending environmental and social crises. What are you most proud of about how your country/region has responded, and where do you feel things have fallen short?

The Responsible Capitalism agenda has high traction in many European markets, and in the UK, political parties from both ends of the spectrum are trying to take this issue out of 'policy vision' and into action.

The problem we see is one more peculiar to the US and European markets [in which] public scepticism of corporate motives is incredibly high.

Our recent research study Meaningful Brands for a Sustainable Future shows that the US and European markets are the least likely markets to make purchasing decisions based on environmental, social or ethical aspects of products or services. China and the South American markets are actually much more likely to use these aspects to guide decisions when they go shopping. Digging deeper into the reasons why people don’t purchase responsible products, we see a clear information gap across all markets with people agreeing that ‘From the information available, it is difficult to understand if a particular product is more responsible than another.' However, price is a key determinant in developed markets for purchase, coupled with credibility.

So, coupled with the sluggish economy in Europe, with price yet again coming to the top of the agenda in purchasing decisions, the ability for brands and businesses to communicate around sustainability in a way that drives incremental profit is an interesting challenge.

Q: As a leading business consultant who is creating new business value by uncovering meaningful ways to create positive environmental and social impact, what triggered your realization that sustainability could become the core driver of innovation, revenue growth and brand value for your business? How did you started seeing ways that your company might take advantage of this opportunity?

Proving the business case for communications around sustainability is a difficult but important task. Too often, such activity is pushed up into the long term brand equity box by Sustainability and Brand departments. This is fine because such activity can drive long-term brand value — however it makes all projects in this area really susceptible to short-term business pressures. The only way to square this circle is to actually approach all sustainability problems as an opportunity to drive immediate short-term incremental profits. No exceptions.

This actually gets over people's inherent corporate cynicism really quickly (especially prevalent in developed markets). If the brands' business motivation is clear then people are very accepting of both the short- and long-term business benefits. They find it disarming and it positively impacts their quality of life.

Q: What are some of the business success metrics resulting from your efforts (i.e., revenue growth, market share improvements, customer/employee loyalty, leadership recognition in your category, improved brand reputation, etc)?

Sustainability communications should always be linked to driving short-term incremental profits for a business. And all activity should be designed with this in mind (ales, profit, market share).

Making the long-term business case is pretty easy  customer loyalty, NPS, advocacy, employee advocacy, enhanced brand reputation are all easy measures to increase with a well-thought-through, high-profile campaign on sustainability issues.  

Q: Once you began thinking about sustainability as a brand driver, what are the major obstacles you have had to overcome? What lessons can you share that might help others find faster success?

Not addressing the short-term business case early enough and designing programmes that too often have far reaching effects but only exhibited in the long term. Campaigns can get signed off for 1 or 2 years with this approach but often die on the wheel of business pressures and economic reality  no matter how hard a team fights for them or how hard the CEO pushes the agenda.  

Short-term success breeds long-term effects and campaign longevity  t'was always thus and probably t'will always be (unless we can change our accounting practices to take long-term value into consideration).

Q: The Sustainable Brands community started in the US, but it is now spreading around the world as more companies become excited about the potential for embedding sustainability into their brand as a way to drive economic recovery and ensure a positive future for humanity. Why are you involved in helping convene the Sustainable Brands community in London? What do you see as uniquely valuable about the conversation that is shaping up at SB London, and what do you hope participants will gain from attending?

I want to see sustainability break out of its own marketing bubble and enter the mainstream business debate. I am hoping SB London is a step towards this.

SB London
Kate Cox is just one of the speakers sharing her insights at our upcoming SB London Conference.
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