by Marc Stoiber
I cut my advertising teeth in a world where massive campaigns
were created to trumpet innovations that were usually incremental,
or insignificant. While it was terrific fun for me as a creative
director, I believe in hindsight our clients would've been better
served diverting ad funds into r&d. Designer Yves Behar captured the sentiment succinctly:
"Advertising is the price companies pay for being unoriginal."
Fast forward to today. Technology has dramatically accelerated
the pace of innovation. Sustainability has become a design filter,
pushing new materials and engineering to the forefront. Original,
better products are everywhere. But what about advertising?
It seems 'small innovation, big campaign' brands are waning. Our
growing unease at hyperconsumption (partially fueled by a growing
awareness of climate change) is making us cynical about the status
quo. Social media has turned us into a world of investigative
journalists, decrying brands that don't 'get' the new world.
One would think brands with innovation and sustainability built
in would be trumpeting from the hilltops. Not so.
Adidas. Big Ideas, Softly Spoken.
Alexis Olans is Senior Global Program Manager of
Innovation for Adidas' Better Place sustainability
She's speaking this year at Sustainable Brands' inaugural London
conference, exploring the culture shift that's changing the way
we think about sustainable innovation.
Core to her topic is a new paradigm for communicating the brand
In conversation, she points to events like the London Olympics
as a massive celebration of sustainability. "A few years ago,
sustainability had a crunchy Granola feel." says Olans. "Today,
thanks to events like the Olympics, people simply accept
sustainability as a better way forward."
Adidas, a major player at the Games, reaped the rewards not just
in profile, but in new partnerships and thinking. "The Olympics
enabled us to do a lot of cross brand learning, sharing ideas with
companies in completely different sectors like packaging." says
But how does Adidas communicate sustainability outside the
context of massive events? Olans paints a much subtler, perhaps
even contradictory picture.
"At Adidas, we see sustainability as simply the right thing to
do, not something to lever to our brand's advantage." Olans
understands how this approach can create an uncomfortable brand
tension. "Before London, we didn't even talk about our
sustainability. In fact, consumers had a hard time accessing
information on our sustainability credentials."
Wouldn't celebrating Adidas impressive sustainability
achievements help the brand? "Certainly, but Olans says her
company's culture is one of actions, not words. "We've committed to
sustainability, but we know there's still much more to do." What's
more, she believes overusing sustainability in communication can
create a cynical backlash in consumers.
Performance First, Sustainable Branding A Close
That said, Olans sees a new way for brands to communicate
With 60 major apparel and footwear manufacturers, retailers and
suppliers, Adidas joined theSustainable
Apparel Coalition. Although the Coalition's mandate is to
measure and standardize the environmental and social impacts of
clothing, it is also standardizing the language surrounding
"It's in our best interest to create a common language, with
hard measures behind any claims." says Olans. "That way, the
industry can single out imposters, and begin to market
sustainability in a credible, authentic way."
Olans agrees that sustainability marketing is a real need.
"Consumers still want performance first. But more and more, they're
looking for clothing with sustainability built in."
It's still early days, but Olans feels hopeful. Progress is
palpable. And by keeping communication reserved, she believes
brands will win the trust of skittish consumers.
Lessons For Marketers
Sustainability is an important part of brands that want to futureproof themselves. So how can
you incorporate your brand's sustainable attributes into the
- Talk softly - Consumers have
never been more wary of overpromising. Even worse, sustainability
is a motherhood issue - overpromise / underdeliver, and you'll
create a very nasty, very public reaction.
- Back the claims - Standardized
claims backed by real meaures are still a work in progress. But
chances are, there's an industry group working on the problem in
your sector. Do a little homework to see how your claims measure up
before you plaster them on your packaging.
- Don't try to cheat - There is no
shortage of greenwash-busting in the media. I was just asked to
on a show exposing offenders, and was surprised at the
extent of cheating in claims. If it sounds good, but has no
substantiation, don't do it. The PR nightmare isn't worth it.
This story first appeared in Huffington Post October 16,