Are the Greatest Brands in the World Sustainable?

What makes a brand a great brand? And is there something common to all the great brands that differentiate them from the ordinary ones? These questions bothered marketing expert Jim Stengel, the former global marketing officer of P&G. He decided to look for the answers with the help of Millward Brown Optimor, a brand and business consultancy. Together the two developed the list of the world’s 50 fastest growing brands, or the Stengel 50 as they call it. Then came some more detective work to find out to find out what separates these brands from the others. The answer they found was Ideals.

Yep, apparently in the jungle called the business world, ideals, defined by Stengel and his team as “the higher-order benefit a brand or a business gives to the world,” do make a difference. And those that understand it also make more money – over the past decade the Stengel 50 would have been 400 percent more profitable than an investment in the S&P 500. This finding shouldn’t surprise those who believe in sustainability and the basic notion of ‘doing well by doing good’, but is sustainability actually part of the picture? Are the Stengel 50 brands also the most sustainable ones?

The first challenge of this interesting project was to identify the greatest brands in the world. Millward Brown took a 3-step approach to do it. They began by screening Millward Brown’s database of more than 50,000 global brands to identify the ones with the highest loyalty, or consumer bonding, score. The second step was a screening and ranking of the brands considering their overall bonding scores at the global and country level, their bonding score relative to category, and their bonding growth over time. This provided Millward Brown Optimor with a first list of the brands that people loved and valued the most around the world. The final step was a financial valuation to confirm that these highly bonded brands with strong consumer commitment had generated faster, greater business value growth.

The top 50 brands that came out of this analysis formed the Stengel 50. This list includes: Accenture,  L’Occitane,  Airtel, Louis Vuitton,, MasterCard, Apple, Mercedes-Benz, Aquarel, Method, BlackBerry, Moët & Chandon,  Calvin Klein, Natura, Chipotle, Pampers, Coca-Cola, Petrobras, Diesel, Rakuten Ichiba,  Discovery Communications, Red Bull, Dove, Royal Canin, Emirates, Samsung, FedEx, Sedmoy Kontinent, Google, Sensodyne, Heineken, Seventh Generation, Hennessy, Snow Beer, Hermès, Starbucks, HP, Stonyfield Farm, Hugo Boss, Tsingtao, IBM,, Innocent, Visa, Jack Daniel’s, Wegmans, Johnnie Walker, Zappos, Lindt and Zara.

The next challenge was to find what these brands had in common. The main finding of this investigation, which later on was developed into the book ‘Grow’, was that all of these brands were built on Ideals. So what are these ideals? Each brand has its own – for example, Discovery’s ideal is to satisfy curiosity, Louis Vuittion is about luxuriously accentuate the journey of life, Red Bull seeks to uplift mind and body, Method wants to be a catalyst in a happy healthy home revolution and Jack Daniels exists to celebrate and evoke pride in personal authenticity, independence and integrity.

Although these ideals seem to be somewhat different from one another, the research uncovered that they can be grouped into five fields of fundamental human values:

  • Joy: Delight people with experiences of joy, wonder and limitless possibility (examples: Lindt, Zappos)
  • Connection: Enhancing the ability of people to connect with each other and the world in meaningful ways (Natura, Starbucks)
  • Exploration: Helping people explore new horizons and new experiences (Discovery, Pampers)
  • Pride: Giving people increased confidence, strength, security, and vitality (Snow Beer, Mercedes Benz)
  • Society: Affecting society broadly, from challenging the status quo to redefining categories (IBM, Innocent, Method)

Stengel believes these findings create a good management tool. If a company is not in one of these spaces, he says, maybe it is not asking the right questions or not playing high enough. It is important to understand, he adds, that even though we talk about ideals, this framework is not about altruism, cause marketing or even social responsibility, but the key to unlock the code for business success, motivating all the people a business touches, from employees to customers.

So is it also about sustainability? Looking at the list you can find there sustainability stars (Stonyfield Farm, Seventh Generation, Chipotle and Method), companies with impressive sustainability record (IBM, FedEx, HP), companies with mixed record (Coca-Cola, Apple), companies lacking a sustainability record (Amazon) and many other companies that have some sort of sustainability effort going on. So in all it doesn’t look like this list can be synonymous with a list of the 50 most sustainable brands.

It means that although sustainability is also a business imperative based on ideals, you can have businesses that successfully run on ideals, yet are not sustainable. Brands can still make for example people happy, confident or even pride using non-sustainable practices, but the question is for how long. My feeling is that companies that will want to grow their brands will have to make sure that the ideals that guide them, or the way they interpret them is sustainable. Companies that will ignore it will find out the key they had to unlock the code for business success does no longer fit the 21st century.

[Image credit: Jim Stengel]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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