Building a brand on a social mission

    Ephraim Zvarevashe

    Companies do a lot to prop up their brands, sometimes reaping spectacular success stories and in other instances realizing totally undesirable results. The end game is to guarantee that the winnings are sustainable and the misses provide a learning opportunity for the company. We all learn something from our mistakes and we put on a brave face to grab the next opportunity to present our brands in positive light before our target market. Right?

    Customers across the world have generally closed ranks when it comes to their opinion on sustainability of corporate behaviour. Their tolerance of unsustainable behaviour by companies has reached its limit. Increased frequency of incidences of natural disasters such as hurricanes have somehow convinced consumers that climate change is real and ready to rack havoc in their lives like a petrifying horror movie. Social media should be commented for carrying the gospel of sustainability across the globe almost instantly.  Almost everyone with access to internet has heard about climate change and probably its negative effects. The climate is changing and the future looks bleak unless if we work together and substantially reduce the carbon footprint our companies are dumping on the planet.

    Companies have to be innovative to reduce their carbon foot print. They have to employ strategies to take care of the environment and society in which they operate because the future is in sustainably caring for the environment. The future belongs to those companies engineered and wired to be socially responsible. Their brands are built to be one with the environment with inbuilt interdependency.

    Delta Corporation Limited, one of the biggest companies in terms of market capitalisation listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange ( has an interesting pay-off line which reads “the future is in our brands,” (  One could easily interpret it as marketing myopia. In as much as the statement is subject to various interpretations, the future really belongs to those brands with a promise to satisfy market needs and at the same time appealing to the need by customers to contribute towards taking care of the environment through their consumption patterns and behaviour. Studies have shown a significant percentage of consumers are prepared to pay a premium for brands they perceive to be involved in sustainable practices and at the same time prepared to get rid of those brands they think are causing environmental damages.

    There are so many examples of innovative and promising brands which took a brand reputation knock and some even were taken off the market simply because they lacked a social responsibility appeal from creation.

    The future belongs to brands which are created or reengineered to tick all social and sustainability boxes. The most important social and sustainability issues organisations should pig back their brands on to ensure they ride out any negative impacts likely to emanate from the target market due to unsustainable behaviour, real or imagined, include among others, the following:

    Environmental sustainability

    Customers are almost always voluntarily willing to give a social licence to operate to brands which are perceived to operate in an environmentally sustainable manner. To be environmentally sustainable, a brand should be produced in a manner which causes minimal or no harm to the environment. Examples would include using less water resources, or electricity during the production process, or using bio degradable material or packaging. Oil giant, BP, used about USD 2 Billion to clean up oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico oil rig in an attempt to buy brand forgiveness and the stock price of the brand lost nearly half of its value during the Deepwater Horizon rig crisis in 2010.  The magnitude of the environmental damage caused by the BP brand is normally impossible to ride out without the organisation closing shop. BP was probably saved by its deep cash pockets otherwise we could be talking about a different story now.

    Health and brands

    Some world renowned brands have suffered brand damage after being accused of having negative health effects on consumers, animals and the environment. The government of Zimbabwe banned the use of polystyrene material for packaging for food in 2017 after health and pollution concerns were raised. Investors in these products were affected and some without alternative investment portfolios had to close shop. The World Health Organisation in 2011 issued a health warning on the use of skin lightening cosmetics and in the process affecting the cosmetic manufacturers of such products. MacDonald and Coca-Cola have long been accused of manufacturing foods which cause obesity and diabetes among other health after effects. Coca Cola is fighting to change that perception through introduction of brands such as Coke Zero, a brand meant to be a social torch bearer for the company and survive health fanatics onslaught. There is no denying that these brands lost some of their loyal customers after these accusations. The Food and Drug Administration in America is widely reported to have ordered R. J Reynolds, a major tobacco company in the USA, to pull four of their brands from the market after concluding that the brands were a danger to consumers.

    A brand wired to be socially responsible would be proactive and be in a position to embed social sustainability and package it as part of the brand in its brand communication and avoid market backlash.

    Cause related marketing

    Brands are going to great lengths to endear themselves to the target market through creating unforgettable experiences in the minds of the public. One way of communicating a brand’s pro social nature is to get involved in cause related marketing initiatives. The underlying agenda is to influence a positive opinion in the minds and hearts of the public and at the same time making money. The trick is to be viewed as a brand with the public’s interests at heart rather than simply being viewed as a brand after emptying consumers’ pockets. An example often cited of an excellent cause related marketing initiative is the collaboration between Pampers and UNICEF, a partnership which has managed to provide millions of tetanus vaccines across the world and help to save millions of lives of babies. The initiative is helping Pampers to safe guard the lives of future generations and therefore tremendously contributing to the sustainability of future generations and obviously being viewed as a brand on a truly social mission.

    Ethics and unfair labour practices

    Brands accused of unethical behaviour often find themselves in trouble with their customers, those accused of unfair labour practices would face the wrath of both the customers and regulators and other stakeholders. Unfortunately, the fashion industry has been dogged by accusations of unfair labour practices, running sweat shops and practising modern day slavery. Gap, Marks and Spencer and Adidas have at one point been accused of producing their clothing brands under unethical and unfair labour practices. These accusations easily attract unwanted negative publicity for a brand. A brand on a social mission should always be on the ethical side of the fence, avoid unfair labour practice and proudly possess a clean human rights record.

    Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) disclosure

    The old adage that says “dirty linen should not be washed in public” obviously becomes a hindrance when applied on sustainability issues. Sustainability progress reporting has been found to provide numerous benefits to brands. Among these benefits include:

    • Earning trust from the target market and regulators leading to increased business
    • Improved systems and feedback from the publics through constructive criticism and encouragement
    • A CSR programmes and progress communications strategy and offers a brand a means of controlling its sustainability narrative
    • Proof of being environmentally sensitive
    • These CSR reporting benefits are an indication that brands on a social mission must constantly communicate to the public what they are doing, their carbon footprint and what they are doing to better humanity and the planet.

    In conclusion, it is therefore a no brainer that an organisation should set their brands on a social mission from “cradle to grave”. The benefits are too tremendous to ignore. Organisations should design strategies to ensure their brands follow a sustainability path throughout their life cycles to preserve a going concern status in the market.


    Witten by                     Ephraim Zvarevashe (A sustainability fanatic)

    Email                           [email protected]

    Twitter                         @ezvarevashe

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