Take a look around. Green consumerism is reaching fever pitch. According to Wunderman Thompson, 86% of consumers today expect businesses to play their part in solving challenges like climate change and social justice. It’s no wonder brands are now frantically racing each other, the clock and the climate. To do good, and look good. But unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you’re likely struggling to make the impact you hope to make or are now expected to make. Enter sustainability partnerships.
Let’s face it, most brands today have some element of sustainability in their brand strategy: Whether ESG (environmental, social, governance), DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion), or any combination thereof. You’re probably one of them. It’s the only way to not get left behind. But sustainability is an expansive topic. Even a single alphabet in ESG and DEI requires Herculean effort to pull off and see through. And some brands are doing it more successfully than others.
Where do you stand in this weighty equation?
Why brands are now all in on sustainability partnerships
Sustainability partnerships are basically partnerships that involve 2 or more businesses teaming up for mutual benefits related to sustainability goals. It could be for positive environmental impact or social impact. Or both. Based on the sort of impact they’d like to make, brands may find themselves seeking like-minded companies and organisations, whether for a fling or serious relationship.
Why? Consumer expectations aside, brands recognise that when they reduce their carbon footprint or whip their “S” into shape, the results not only bolster brand reputation but also improve shareholder performance. The more successful ones have even seen gains in operations, staff engagement and financial performance. At the 2022 Asia Tech conference in Singapore, the message was clear: Sustainability is profitability. What’s not to like?
Unfortunately, sustainability requires collective action. It’s not something you can go at it alone. Individual companies can yield only limited impact: Most do not have sufficient resources, knowledge, skill, scale or efficiencies to tackle such big issues on their own. Not to mention, some issues are systemic. And those require a chorus and a coalition. It’s therefore only a matter of time before brands wake up and join forces in their fight for sustainability. It’s the quicker way to accelerate change, scale impact and create value.
While sustainability partnerships are now the flavour of the month, they are notoriously difficult to build, challenging to sustain and even harder to scale. As most divorced couples will tell you, it’s easy to get married, but it’s difficult to stay married. Likewise, brands that enter into sustainability partnerships without the proper footing may find themselves in a world of pain.
How to do sustainability partnerships (and the world) right
Sustainability partnerships are a valuable tool to drive change toward more responsible, inclusive and sustainable growth. This is because by combining the capacity and firepower of multiple parties, you can do more and effect more. You may then be wondering, “Great, sign me up. Where do I start?”.
1. Start with your purpose
We’ve established that you probably already have some form of sustainability in your brand or corporate strategy. The trick now is to make sure that strategy does not circle profit but purpose. After all, a brand’s purpose is not about making money. (That’s organisational.) Instead, a brand’s purpose is about what its audience holds dear, and how the brand can meet those values and desires. Basically, it’s why you do what you do. (Again, not profit).
Most strategists would caution brands against just planting their purpose flag on what’s trending on Twitter, and that’s wise counsel. Rather, you’d want to plant it on a cause (or a few) that you and your audience are genuinely passionate about. What’s the impact you want to make? Whatever it is, it must be something you truly believe in and can see through. Is it about social justice? Or to support the natural state of our environment? Maybe to fight identity prejudice? Or to level the playing field for small businesses? Whatever it is, discover it, own it and commit to it.
2. Define your reason for sustainability partnerships
With your purpose pinned, you will then want to work out why you want to get hitched. Is it for reach? Legitimacy and credibility? Or stronger advocacy? Perhaps it’s to develop a product or service innovation? Maybe to share proprietary knowledge? Consider the gap and opportunity: What’s preventing you from getting to your green and/or rainbow destination?
Then think about what kind of partner can fill that gap. This must be a brand that also aligns with your purpose and partnership goal.
3. Look for kindred spirits: Research, research, research
Sustainability partnerships can take many forms. Here are some common ones. Which one’s right for you?
- With competitors: Some brands set aside differences to meet a common sustainability target. Such sustainability partnerships work on the basis of mutual gain derived from combining resources and scalability. One of which is reach: Your messages travel further, across more platforms. You leverage each other’s communications channels to get your message out to more people without doubling down on advertising budgets.
- Cross industry: Some companies seek out brands from a different sector to partner on sustainability. Doing so not only helps them extend reach into new customer segments, but also allows brands with different expertise to pool together a greater repertoire of knowledge and capabilities to do more. Diverse brands can combine insights and strengths to tackle complex problems or come up with innovative solutions together.
- With suppliers: Many conversations around ESG circle supply chains. This follows increased public scrutiny on a brand/product’s carbon footprint. As a consequence, brands are examining their relationship with suppliers, and looking to partner those that can help them meet decarbonisation and DEI goals.
- With funders: On the other end of the spectrum are investors. These apply mostly to start-ups that need cash infusions to fund operations, innovations, or market penetration.
- With governments/NGOs: Consider them if you need to understand a topic more deeply, for they have expertise that you may not have. Besides, governments and NGOs make great sustainability partners also because they offer access, legitimacy and credibility.
- Community: Special interest/advocacy groups and KOLs can be partners too. They can connect you to audience and influence. You can have them consult on solutions; or use them as a springboard to understand challenges to more accurately orientate your solution.
4. Put together a compelling pitch
When approaching brands for sustainability partnerships you must pitch your right-to-win: Why are you in the best position to do this, and what do you have to offer in the relationship? In other words, why should they partner you and not others? Then offer a vision of where you think they can come in, and how.
Be prepared to share the societal and/or environmental benefits, relevance and envisioned outcomes of what you want to do. For a compelling pitch, don’t simply cite UN SDG goals (you know, the ones with the numbers and coloured blocks). Go beyond broad statements and intent. Think about specific targets and KPIs. Back it up with data. The more tangible you make it, the more credible you will come across.
Now’s a good chance to demonstrate to your prospective partner that sustainability is a conversation beyond your marketing department. Talk about how your business is/has been/will be sustainable. This way, you come across sincere, passionate and authentic.
Speaking of sincerity, make sure you have the correct representation at critical meetings. Bring out senior firepower. When they know that it’s worth your senior leaders’ time, they’ll know that it’s worth theirs.
5. Discuss the depth and tone of the partnership
Consumers today know when you’re being serious about sustainability and when you’re just greenwashing. Whichever partner you align with, make sure to research their reputation in this regard, lest they tarnish yours. Ensure their values match up and there’s genuine interest and commitment. And that they’re not in it just for PR purposes.
Therefore, when negotiating sustainability partnerships, move beyond superficial or transactional arrangements (e.g., buying media space or database to push your sustainability messages; or running a promotional giveaway in the name of climate change…and then end at that). Know that sustainability partnerships that prioritise integration and transformation are more meaningful and impactful. And valued.
Talk about who from their organisation will be involved. This is because for sustainability partnerships to succeed, it must always start at the top. This means not just senior management buy-in, but for senior management to actively build a culture for such partnerships to thrive. In other words, senior leaders must be willing to mobilise, inspire and galvanise staff participation.
6. Make your resources available
Be prepared to put some skin into the game when you enter into sustainability partnerships. That means being honest and transparent on how much effort, time and resources you’re willing to put into this arrangement. Strive to understand the caliber of your resources as well. It should match up to your partners’ expectations.
7. Clearly spell out the rules of engagement
Professional partnerships have little room for flip-flopping. It’s perfectly acceptable to draw up a contract. The bigger the stakes, the greater the need for a legally binding agreement. If you’re jointly developing a campaign, programme, product or service, ensure clarity in things like IP ownership. Make provisos also for items like timelines, human capital, financial investment, meeting cadences, advertising commitments on both sides. Clearly state the who, what, when, where and hows.
Now, even as you focus on governing principles and obligations for a successful sustainability partnership, remember to not neglect its destination. Think about what success looks like. What is the destination that both parties can agree to? Make it quantitative, if possible. Finally, do a bit of scenario planning: When you’ve reached this target, what’s next?; conversely, if you don’t reach it, what happens? It’s important to agree on what the exit looks like. Nobody likes a messy custody battle.
Today, a company’s focus is no longer about the top line or bottomline. It’s about the greenline. Brands that understand this agenda and align their activities will reap business and reputation benefits. But with a challenge as complex as sustainability, brands are hard-pressed to manage it alone. For it takes collective action, cooperation and, of course, massive amount of control and coordination. Are you ready to take on this challenge?
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