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Disrupt & Delight: Five Principles for Sustainable Brand Innovation

Why sustainable brand innovation is our best hope for creating new, better business models with greater shared value—and how to achieve it.

Innovate or die, the saying goes. Whether you call it innovation, disruption or some other buzzword, brands big and small have frantically chased the next big idea for many decades. After all, the rewards can be great (survival notwithstanding), and forward-thinking innovators are heralded as heroes in boardrooms and on magazine covers across the globe.

Of course, innovation for innovation’s sake is a short-term strategy that does little to help solve the very real problems currently faced by our planet and its people. Consumers don’t necessarily want—or need—more stuff. Rather, they want “better” stuff, and a growing majority wants companies to move from “less bad” to “net good.”

As we shared in our recent report on New Consumers--those youthful, wired consumers looking to “purchase with a purpose”--it’s a time of radical contradiction as our new way of life is defined by more scarcity, complexity and speed—as well as more creativity, innovation and participation.

Against this backdrop, a number of fundamental and exciting questions emerge:

  • How might we design new business models driven by more than just consumption?
  • How might we re-invent whole systems in ways that make the limits of the status quo obsolete?
  • How might we create more happiness and a better quality of life for more people even as our economy shifts to meet nature’s limits?

To help answer these questions, we’re introducing a new framework for “Sustainable Brand Innovation.” At BBMG, we believe that sustainability is not only the biggest economic opportunity of our time but that it’s an innovation imperative. Simply put, winning brands will meet the moment by embedding sustainability in every strategy, inspiring co-creativity in every process and unleashing shared value that works for all.

So how do we create new ways to do much more with much less? Our latest booklet, Disrupt & Delight, outlines five principles based on our direct experience and the best practices of leading companies like Nike, Patagonia and Unilever. Here’s a quick recap:

1. Start With What’s Sacred

University of Virginia psychology professor Jonathan Haidt helps explain why companies like Coke and Zappos are in the business of Happiness, not products: “The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred.” That’s not to say brands should be considered deities, but people who share an idea of the “sacred” can trust one another, work as a team and, eventually, change behavior on a large scale. This tribal mentality is what allowed Chipotle to put a stake in the ground with its disruptive “Food with Integrity” ethos that’s not just challenging the way the fast-food industry sources its food and treats animals; it’s helping codify a movement. 

2. Design Holistically

Biomimicry is more than a design-world buzzword: It’s an important reminder to step back and appreciate the simple beauty and efficient answers provided by nature itself. Beyond simply copying nature’s design, sustainable brand innovation means remembering the health and importance of an entire ecosystem. From Levi’s Water<Less jeans to InterfaceFLOR’s modular carpets, leading brands are designing better solutions within closed loop systems.

3. Create Collaboratively

To meet the weighty challenges of today’s global economy, we can’t go it alone—even if we wanted to. Sustainable brand innovation means inviting more real-world perspectives into the process. The best solutions are not necessarily crowd-sourced, but they are co-created with input from parts of organizations, communities and society. Unilever, with its new platform, offers experts the opportunity to help find solutions for the company’s dual ambition of doubling in size while reducing its impact. Approximately 60 percent of the company’s innovation pipeline is now generated through this open innovation process.

4. Be Playful

Leading scientists, researchers and business leaders are waking up to what kids at your local park already know: play helps us move beyond rigid rules and predetermined structures to create new possibilities. Workplaces that foster a playful approach (or, at the very least, deviate from the expected from time to time) are rewarded with employees who more easily improvise and think of new ideas. Brands that embrace gamification, like RecycleBank, are trying to marry a sense of play with behavioral economics to drive more consumer engagement.

5. Disrupt and Delight

Sustainable brands also realize the essential link between successful innovation and consumer delight: that joyful union of high design and high eco-minded performance. It’s significant that the constraints of sustainability have actually helped create some of the most exciting business ideas of our time. Most of MethodHome’s customers are drawn by the form factor, not the war on toxics. Warby Parker has succeeded not because of its noble commitment to social good, but because they disrupted an entire industry by giving customers what they never knew they always wanted: high-quality, fashion-forward eyeglasses, online shopping, a no-risk home try-on policy.

In the end, we believe sustainable brand innovation can provide a new way forward, greatly accelerating the changes so urgently needed and helping us transcend the limits of traditional innovation processes to create shared value for all.

Want the full story? Download the full booklet here


As Founding Partner and Chief Strategy Officer of BBMG, Raphael unites branding, sustainability and innovation to help organizations unleash shared value.

An expert in brand strategy, CSR/cause marketing and public affairs, Raphael is a passionate champion for a new approach to… [Read more about Raphael Bemporad]


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