Fernando Fischmann

Can Brands Save the World?

8 July, 2015 / Articles
Fernando Fischmann

Melting glaciers. Increasing obesity. Oppressed workers. There are a lot of things to worry about these days. Business researchers often ask how individual behavior can be changed to mitigate the ill effects of risk-laden phenomena — how to get consumers to make sacrifices so business doesn’t have to pay for problems like underpaid workers and rising obesity levels. But they usually find that such changes are incredibly difficult to engineer. Marketers, on the other hand, usually want to know where the opportunities lie — even in global problems like climate change. For some companies, the opportunity both to address the world’s problems and to attract more customers lies in letting individuals do what they have always done well — consume — and having the brands make sacrifices instead.

Since well before the Mad Men era, brand marketers have conditioned us to think that we should look to them to meet our ever-changing needs (and whims) easily, often inexpensively, and usually without guilt. You may have thought this gluttonous consumption is how we arrived at overflowing landfills, immense plastic gyres floating around the Pacific Ocean, and vastly underpaid workers in low-wage countries. Perhaps. But now, according to a recent report from TrendWatching, an increasing number of brands are willing to undertake the costs necessary to reverse those social ills, and more, without affecting the consumer’s consumption habits. They call it “brand sacrifice.”

TrendWatching gives examples of brand sacrifice in each three categories:

  • Sacrifice for the self. CVS’s decision to stop selling tobacco products. The company sacrifices revenue in order to help its customers lead healthier lives, even when competitors like Walgreens decline to follow suit.
  • Sacrifice for society. Intel stopped using conflict minerals in its chips. Its customers (and all of the end users who buy an “Intel Inside” product) can feel better about a cleaner and less controversial supply chain.
  • Sacrifice for the planet. H&M and other retailers stopped selling angora wool because of animal cruelty issues in production.

Of course, not every sacrifice fits neatly into one category. Chipotle made news a few months back when it stopped selling pork in some of its restaurants because a supplier had failed to meet the company’s animal care requirements. Chipotle’s stringent commitment to meat from antibiotic-free animals raised in humane conditions can be seen as both a sacrifice for the self (healthier offerings for its customers) and the planet (encouraging sustainable farming practices). The company’s stock suffered when it took a stand that sacrificed sales. But when I spoke to Maxwell Luthy, director of trends and insights at TrendWatching, he told me he believes the enduring loyalty Chipotle engendered by its sacrifice outweighs the short-term cost.

Brand sacrifice initially hit me as a through-the-looking-glass moment in which everything is turned upside-down. However, digging more deeply, I found evidence that responsible company action may be one way of undoing what more than a century of growing consumerism has created — and business is benefitting in the process. Take Patagonia, for example. The company is several years into a “buy less” campaign that asks current customers to wear what they have until it is threadbare. The result: an increase in sales. CEO Yvon Chouinard told Inc. magazine, “I know it sounds crazy, but every time I have made a decision that is best for the planet, I have made money. Our customers know that — and they want to be part of that environmental commitment.” What is not clear is whether these are old customers feeling good about trading up, or new customers migrating from brands less willing to sacrifice.



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