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Making Meaningful Connections with Stakeholders Through People-Centered Design Thinking

Target's Jennifer Silberman | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Throughout the week at SB’18 Vancouver, a host of organizations shared a range of strategies for making meaningful and lasting connections with customers and other stakeholders, while improving their contributions to society.

Design, disrupted for good

First up, Cheryl Heller — Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA (School of Visual Arts) and president of the design lab, CommonWise — took the stage on Tuesday morning with a clear mission. “I’d like to inspire you to think about design in a new way; what it is, what it accomplishes, and why it matters,” she told a packed plenary audience. Her talk gave us a sneak preview of her new book, The Intergalactic Design Guide, which comes out in September.

Slide credit: Cheryl Heller | Image credit: Mia Overall

She started off by reminding us of design’s deep power. Design makes us trust brands; it makes them memorable and iconic; it’s built the world as we know it and it’s transformed our lives with technology.

But as Heller sees it, “the most important element of design is untapped,” and that’s where there’s potential to tackle challenges such as climate change, poverty and inequality. If we want things in our world to be different, we have to do things differently. Heller invites us to try this by redesigning the social architecture that connects us and disconnects us from each other, from the earth and from everything around us, including our technology and our things. Designing for social innovation, she says, “means using the same tools we used to screw ourselves to unscrew us.” But what does this mean?



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Social design is the design of relationships, the creation of new social conditions intended to increase agency, creativity, equity, resilience and connection to nature. If you have a creative culture, creative things happen.

Heller highlighted examples of people doing what industries and peers think is impossible: Rachel Brown established a social media network of peace builders in Kenya; Brown Super Stores in Philadelphia are giving people in food deserts the products they want; and Interface’s Net-Works Program is building relationships with unusual partners in Philippines to collect fishing nets and weave them into new yarn for carpet tiles. Each used counter-intuitive thinking and designed for relationships instead of transactions.

So, how do we do this? “Stop trying to solve problems,” she said. “Instead, define a purpose and a vision and then create it.” She also suggests we inquire before we decide, ignore conventional wisdom, use counter-intuitive thinking, “hack” traditional processes, and design for relationships instead of transactions.

She ended by inviting us to spend the rest of our time at SB this week looking for opportunities to think about design in a new way.

How embedding purpose into your brand can lead to innovative design ideas

Next up, Jennifer Silberman, VP of Corporate Responsibility for Target, spoke about the connections between purpose and the brand. She opened by stating point-blank that Target’s brand was in trouble at the end of 2016 — it was losing its sense of magic and needed to find a way to make guests once again proud to shop at Target.

The work that Silberman has orchestrated across 350,000 team members in 50 states in the past couple of years was instrumental in turning around the corporation’s image. They knew that “doing nothing was not an option” and made a major commitment to truly transform the business: remodeling stores, refreshing the brand portfolio, and reimagining what corporate responsibility could mean for Target.

While since 1940, Target has been donating 5 percent of its profits back to the communities it serves, the refreshed CR strategy was critical. When Silberman’s leadership team examined what’s needed in this ever-changing retail environment, they realized that corporate responsibility had to be embedded into the DNA of business and brand so it could drive meaningful, lasting impact. They built a more sophisticated approach on these three notions, a comprehensive effort, that’s now really driving business:

  1. The store’s legacy is not guaranteed.
  2. Transactional purchases aren’t enough to keep the company moving with momentum into the future.
  3. Consumers demand more — and Target serves 30 million of them a week.

Target doesn’t just sell products; it designs and sources private label brands that guests truly love. With this is the power to scale and prompt change, which can have a ripple effect that goes way beyond the store’s doors and changes consumers’ mindsets. Consumers don’t just want to buy stuff, they want to buy what aligns to their values.

“Expect more. Pay less” applies to the savings — but also to the fact that guests shouldn’t have to make compromises. Target is working to “democratize sustainability” — giving customers access to products that are better for them and better for the planet. The new CR strategy helps Target deliver on their purpose: With the “Future at Heart,” it’s driving lasting economic value in communities. How is this happening in practice? Target …

  • is operating sustainable buildings in retail.
  • has committed to raising the minimum wage from $10 to $15 by 2020.
  • is the top corporate installer of solar power in the United States.
  • has a clothing line advocating for social justice and equality. Its most successful brand launch was Cat & Jack T-shirts with messages of “Strong like Mom” and “Kind Is Cool”

Silberman closed by sharing that she’s only beginning the CR journey with the company. “We’ve made too much progress to go back, and we can’t go it alone.” The challenges we face are bigger than any one company — “Redesigning the Good Life” is a team sport that requires all of us. “Working together and leveraging our strengths, we can move markets, inspire different business models, and build a better tomorrow!”

Innovative product strategies that help build new types of meaningful consumer connections

Image credit: Kim Bellavance/Sustainable Brands

That afternoon, a breakout session featuring Whirlpool, S’well, Aker Biomarine and Nielsen allowed the audience to learn how leading companies in different industries are actively designing products and initiatives to create meaningful connections with consumers. We have learned that consumers want products that they love and have a natural affinity with — with sustainability being a welcome “add-on.”

Crystal Barnes, SVP of Global Responsibility & Sustainability at Nielsen and Executive Director at Nielsen Foundation, opened by reminding us that even when consumers “say they care,” that doesn’t always translate into purchasing decisions. Companies need to embed sustainability into the entire pipeline; however, certain sustainability claims grow faster than others. Consumers are willing to pay a higher price for products that align with their values; they have the purchasing power to promote your brand based on their feelings on your sustainability efforts — so this is an opportunity to think creatively about growth. “If you’re looking at a brand that has multiple products within the portfolio, you won’t always make profit when being sustainable,” she pointed out. “It’s about how you plug sustainable practices into your portfolio.”

Next, Chelsey Lindstrom, Senior Brand Manager at Whirlpool, presented a social initiative called “Care Counts,” which has helped families and children thrive, and has in turn had astounding effects on the company’s sales. Whirlpool discovered that one of the leading contributors to elementary school absenteeism is not having access to clean clothes. After bringing washing machines to schools to do laundry for children who did not previously have access, they saw an 85 percent increase in attendance and 95 percent increase in participation in extracurricular activities. Whirlpool now operates this program in 68 schools in 10 cities; another 1,000 schools have applied to participate. The business results: 340 MM earned media impressions and a 317 percent increase in social sentiment. The takeaway: Emotional connection is really how you break through.

Third to speak was Kendra Peavy, VP of Corporate Communications at S’well. The fashionable water bottle line was launched in 2010 as a means of getting rid of plastic, encouraging people to make simple changes in their everyday lives to have impact. What they quickly learned upon setting up shop was that “being dark green didn’t work; we had to lead with design.” This new perspective resonated with consumers in a completely different way. S’well did not want to make people feel guilty, but rather encouraged a new lifestyle choice by promoting the sentiment of “use this, look great, feel great; and by the way, you’re doing something good.” By 2020, S’well aims to help prevent 100 million plastic bottles from entering landfills and waterways. To learn more, follow the hashtag #ReduceTheUse.

Finally, Cilia Holmes Indahl, Director of Sustainability at Aker BioMarine, presented how the company is sustainably harvesting krill fish oil, and how it plans to expand operations to help people around the world who have health issues due to deficiencies in Omega 3s. This deficiency has stemmed as a new wave of social problems that have resulted in poor lifestyle habits. Indahl said Aker BioMarine started the krill initiative ten years ago to close the gap, as there previously were no truly resource-efficient sources of Omega 3s. The optimal diet for people and planet is mainly plant-based, but with marine sources for Omega 3, but we have to make sure the marine resources we’re using are renewable and sustainable. Indahl went on to say she is now working with the Lupus Research Alliance and investigating how krill oil can benefit patients suffering from lupus.

Driving positive impact with Cradle to Cradle Certified™

The next day, L’Oréal USA kicked off a session detailing its product sustainability journey with an exciting announcement — five of its Garnier products have just received Cradle to Cradle™ silver certification. When I flip to the Cradle to Cradle™ Product Registry’s Health and Beauty section, which currently has 10 entries, I realize the scope of this achievement. More compelling yet was the core message from Danielle Azoulay, Head of CSR and Sustainability at L’Oréal USA, that the label is just external recognition for the company’s longstanding product design process. She pointed that as a mass brand, Garnier has been just unrecognized good practice in a market where sustainability is often equated with luxury.

Well before approaching the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute (CCPII), L’Oréal developed a custom sustainable product optimization tool (essentially a life cycle assessment tool), internally known as SPOT, that guides its product design process. It’s used internally in an iterative way to generate provisional scores at different stages of the product development process to identify opportunities for design improvements. According to Azoulay, “we liked Cradle to Cradle because its five criteria mirrored our SPOT assessment, our own approach.” C2C certification allows L’Oréal to communicate its processes and criteria to customers. Going forward? A bold goal to improve its entire product portfolio.

The panelists gave a window into how multiple organizations can work effectively on the product design and certification process. L’Oréal worked with CCPII and MBDC — the organization founded by Michael Braungart, co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle® Design framework. Jay Bolus, President of Certification Services at MBDC, explained the challenges with the push to disclosure and transparency. As he pointed out: “Disclosure does not equal transparency, and transparency does not equal reduced risk. Companies have invested significantly in research and development; not all of their chemical formulas or supply chain details should be made public — most consumers may not have the time or interest in making sense of long lists of ingredients.” As a meaningful alternative, the certifying organization becomes a trusted third party that reviews sensitive company information and communicates the brand standing to consumers in a way that is understandable and recognizable.

CCPII president Lewis Perkins put a point on the zeitgeist of the corporate sustainability movement: “We’ve shifted from ‘know what your bad is’ to asking ‘how do we have a positive impact?’ The goal is to build corporate models based on positive impact — like 100 percent renewable.” Azoulay captured this nicely in sharing the vision of her CEO, Frédéric Rozé: “Sustainability isn’t just something we want to do, it’s who we want to be.”


Barbara is a community planner with a background in environmental, social and Indigenous planning and activism in Canada and internationally. She is an Associate of Reeve Consulting, where she supports clients to create, improve and share the success of their sustainable supply… [Read more about Barbara Everdene]


Mia Overall is a sustainable business consultant, founder of Overall Strategies, based in New York City. She has advised global companies around the world on their sustainability strategies, initiatives, reports, and helped them drive sustainability through supply chains,…
[Read more about Mia Overall]


Marissa Rosen is the founder of Climate Social, LLC, a communications firm at the intersection of digital marketing and sustainability. Climate Social designs strategies to build compelling brands, promote high profile events, and engage networks from around the…
[Read more about Marissa Rosen]


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