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  • Writer's pictureNick Keppel-Palmer

Could brand strategy be good for the planet?*

Most brand strategy doesn't do anything for the planet.

Just as sustainability world doesn't do value and opportunity, brand world is rubbish at sustainability. It doesn't get it. For most brand shops sustainability is a product feature. Just another reason to buy. Weep.

It's a big shame because at the heart of brand, from the time before the big brand shops relegated their own discipline to a subdivision of sales, there is a world-saving concept that we need right now. A deeper, broader concept of value built on origin.

Why a different concept of value?

Key to success in fixing the planet - but very hard to do - is producing much, much less stuff. (We are hopelessly overproducing, and unless we reverse course we're going to keep screwing up the planet).

To do that we need to generate much more value from much less stuff. Which means we have to redefine (and broaden) how we think about value and build a better economic model.

Too much stuff

There's a longer discussion on all this here - More Money, Less Stuff

We make too much. Of everything. We dig up too much stuff. So much stuff that we're using up too much planet. Since 1970 we've been overshooting and it's getting worse.

We don't count the stuff we dig up because, well, because it doesn't count. So our material flow footprint doesn't measure the waste we dig up (for example the 20 tonnes of rock required to get enough gold for one wedding ring). Our GDP stats don't measure inputs because we only care about finished goods. What gets wasted on the way is out of the stats book and out of mind.

And (whisper it quietly) now we find it ever harder to sell all that stuff. I've lost count of the number of people who say the job they used to love has become a ceaseless treadmill of stress. Trying to find ways to push out all the stuff we can't stop ourselves making.

Whether it's clothes or cars or music we make too much. How do we stop?

We can't just stop making so much stuff overnight

The dilemma is perfectly illustrated by the mess that apparel is in. Far too many clothes are produced (110 bn or so items every year). Tonnes gets sent to landfill every year. A lot of them are made from synthetic materials. Simply stopping the synthetics but keeping the volume would put massive pressure on "natural" fibres and destroy much more of our natural environment. Simply halving the volume (realistically what needs to happen) would devastate millions of livelihoods entwined in global supply systems geared to those high volumes.

Reducing volumes (by a lot) is a necessity to fix our relationship with the environment. But reducing volumes would be devastating for livelihoods. Not to mention drive a wedge through a load of "pile em high, sell em cheap" business models.

keep destroying the planet, or screw millions of people to save the planet

Much too scary to contemplate. But we have to find a way to tackle it.

Value first, then volume

There is a route through this. Redefine value first, then fix the volume problem.

If we can reframe business success to recognise that "value" uplift is not dependent on volume then we have a starting point.

At present our economic version is very narrow - all about prices and costs. But we are all well aware that as humans we treasure other forms of value. We have an instinctive, intuitive sense value that goes way beyond prices and costs. What if we could translate that deeper sense of value into a new economic model?

And this is where brand strategy might just have a big contribution to make.

The trinity of value redefinition

These less tangible concepts of value are what could form the basis of a much healthier economic model. Value that is intrinsic. Value that is not dependent on hoovering up ever more materials. The things that are hard to measure but priceless.

Three distinct but connected concepts are emerging:

How origin, identity and nature come together to form the basis of a redefined value platform
Value redefined
  • Nature uplift is all about the positive impacts of restoring and stewarding nature. Soil health, biodiversity, water, productivity. More on this another time but the idea is that "nature wealth" should be seen as a fiduciary grade asset class and sit on the balance sheet.

  • Identity value is the slipperiest yet probably the most powerful concept. It's the value that comes from a sense of connection. Something that makes "me" feel good about myself. It's the symbiotic relationship between me and the planet. If that relationship can be amplified through brand associations then I will value that brand even more. More on this another time.

  • Origin value is where brands started. A symbol of where something came from. The value of origin reinforced and amplified through a system. People and place. This is basically how wine works - it's all about where (and when) it comes from. (If you've ever seen "Sideways" you'll know).

Value redefined is where these three come together to form a powerful reset for how we think about economic value in an enterprise, and if done right can bring the enterprise to a point where it's earning more from less, earning more by being more in synch with the planet.

Origin Value - where brands started

a Mongolian horse with a branding symbol
A Mongolian horse from Jinst

We spend a lot of time in Mongolia, working with herder communities to instigate regeneration across large landscapes that they steward. This country has a long history of using branding symbols to serve as marks of origin.

There are branding symbols here that go back hundreds of years, which signify not just where something comes from, but also how it was looked after. These symbols are much more than just geo-tags - they are marks of quality, shorthand for "you can trust". Symbols of origin.

Origin matters but many sectors ignore it

Increasingly food plays on origin value. Cheese especially. Wine couldn't function without it.

Origin value is at the heart of how wine works. The wine market (crudely) splits into two very distinct chunks - a big volume driven chunk that spans 70% of the bottles but only 30% of the revenue, and a story chunk through independent stores that is 30% of the volume but 70% of the revenue.

The cost of making a bottle of wine is about the same however you make it. But the margins in the volume chunk are either negative or minimal. Wine sold through the story channel is many, many times more profitable than wine sold through the volume channel.

Provided the origin has strength - a good story, good people, good place, good practice.

Clothing should pay attention to origin value, but it's part of the tragedy of apparel that it doesn't. Hardly any brands have 'sourcing' chains that enable them any kind of proximity to where materials come from. This is baked in to how most of the sector thinks. Talk about origin and - mostly - all you get is blank stares and "well that would never work here". Ironic - because it's probably the most strategically powerful transformation tool clothing has.

Sand and steel have origin value

Without sand there'd be no internet. No EVs. No drones. No phones.

Sand matters. Sand is the base stuff from which we make semi-conductors. I suspect you didn't know (I didn't) that there is only one place which can produce quartz that is pure enough to make the crucibles to melt the polysilicon to make computer chips. Spruce Pine, a small town in North Carolina is absolutely critical to the world's semiconductor industry. Quartz from anywhere else won't do it.

Not all steel is the same. At all. In fact there is so little "low background" (uncontaminated by radiation) steel available (essential for medical equipment and Geiger counters) that the only place to get it is from ships wrecked before Enola Gay dropped its payload.

In fact it turns out that most of the things we have dismissed as interchangeable commodities are not. The properties of materials are shaped by where, and when, they come from. Origin.

Turning origin into economic value

Price. Obviously origin can translate into price. We're happy to pay a bit more for something that comes from somewhere.

Sometimes we'd be happy to pay a much higher price. Think of the Spruce Pine Quartz, without which the world as we know it stops.

Chains. But there's more than just price. There is something I'm going to call 'chain effectiveness'.

A key bit of wine is the design of the chain. It's all about preserving and amplifying that origin story. Small batches, kept separate, sold with story. It is the polar opposite of a volume maximisation chain and it works. What you lose in economy of scale you gain in story value.

But the chains can be efficient as well as effective. Collaboration can lead to aggregation effects that mimic economy of scale. A basic example might be several small producers sharing logistics (one full container costs the same as one mostly empty one).

The example of the Teliani Collection is great. The "big" winemaker, Teliani Valley, lends its distribution muscle to multiple curated artisanal but low volume winemakers (Georgia is a land of wine makers). The result is that everyone wins. Customers get to try rare wines they'd never normally come across, restaurants get something unusual to put on their lists, Teliani Valley gets some kudos and reputation uplift for acting as the facilitator, and the artisan winemakers get access to international markets they could never reach on their own.

Teliani Collection wine bottle
Teliani distributes wine for small scale producers

Conversely, back to clothing, turns out the hyper globalised chains are pretty inefficient. Huge plants utilised 25% of the time. Making too much stuff on an artificial seasonality is highly inefficient.

Monopoly/monopsony effects

And lastly origin doesn't just mean story. It also means strong reciprocal relationships at the originating end of the chain. This really matters because the impact of more sustainable business (as driven by powerful forces like TNFD) will be to reshape supply chains to be much more integrated, much less transactional and much more relationship based.

So good, integrated relationships with the people who are stewarding the bits of nature upon which your chain is dependent will become a key competitive strength. In fact the shift of focus to the non-market end of the chain will shift competition to that end too. Most brands haven't twigged this yet - but it's a fundamental change and it's coming soon.

Paul Worthington has written about how brand mimics monopoly effects in categories where there is no monopoly. This shift to the other end of the chain is going to drive monopsony effects where strong relationships with originators grants exclusive access to world leading places of origin. (Think about how many people would love exclusive access to the Spruce Pine quartz).

Brand strategy won't save the planet - but it can help

If we're going to fix the planet we have to redefine value first, and use that to climb down from dangerously extractive volume production.

Key to redefining value is to translate less tangible but intuitive concepts of value into an economic model.

Brand strategists get these forms of value. It's what they work with every day. But thus far they shy away from challenging conventional "more volume" economics.

If brand strategy is going to have a hand in saving the planet I think this is one area where it has a big role to play. Not using brand to flog more stuff but using it to map out and define planet-friendly forms of value.

Thanks for reading. I know there's a lot more to this problem not least the language we use to describe business, but this feels like a good place to start.

Really happy to hear from people who like this direction of travel.

*No. But it might help


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