Is talk of sustainability a luxury when leaders are obsessed with survival?

Plan A at M&S (because there can be no plan B)

Out-takes from our January networking breakfast facilitated by Ian Buckingham and featuring  – Mike Barry, Head of Sustainable Business

Mike wouldn’t call himself an iconoclast. But the first of many myths he debunked over the croissants was the notion that a corporate conscience was somehow a luxury for the boom times. A sustainable brand embraces the full range of stakeholders, inside and out, engaging the key communities with a compelling vision and conveying a genuine sense of corporate responsibility reflected in both the value set they project and the behaviour they demonstrate.

The evolution of sustainability at M&S covered the philanthropic and fair trade touchstones we would all expect. It is an extension of the CEO’s vision of the growing power of customer and NGO communities. And it is a powerful motivator for managing reputation risk. But few of the gathered executives listening to Mike’s story could have expected that the drivers of sustainability within M&S now include:

  • continuously managing down their cost base
  • the increasing power of customers and the citizenship movement, liberated by new media and powerful communication tools
  • the impulse to stay ahead of the competition who in many cases are adopting an increasingly visionary stance and often seeking to differentiate themselves as brands who are sustainable, focused on all stakeholder groups and are here to stay
  • the need to continuously drive innovation through engagement or run the risk of being undermined by a disruptive, game-changing development in their core market

As we approach 2012, organisations across sectors are under unprecedented pressure given the ongoing turmoil in world markets. Leaders are under fire as never before and they need all their stakeholders on side, acting as advocates for the brand. To achieve this they have to encourage inspirational and silo-busting thinking. Yet the notion that developing a culture of sustainability detracts from the day job or is a complicated or complex process is the second of the major myths undermined during the discussion.

Mike highlighted the following key milestones in the development of their strategy:

  • the appointment of a self-managing role-model champion or catalyst
  • the close integration of what we refer to as the brand trilogy of Communications; HR and Marketing working in harmony with the core team
  • having a strategy and a plan (an overlapping 5 year one in this case)
  • focusing on a consistent set of key metrics accessible to all, especially line managers
  • linking a significant percentage of reward to the programme
  • clear leadership, sponsorship and  role-modelling from the top
  • sharing and reinforcing best practices through supporting communication
  • creating a compelling brand for the programme
  • creating a network of local champions to re-educate; engage and drive “viral change”
  • engaging, educating and inspiring stakeholders across the 4 Cs: community; colleagues; customers and corporate
  • focusing minds on a few high-profile engagement events but encouraging local initiative, empowerment and innovation

To a large extent, Mike was preaching to the converted as this gathering was predicated on the belief in the need to consistently engage with multiple stakeholder groups to sustain brand performance. It’s at the core of the Brand Engagement philosophy. But even the assembled group of like minds couldn’t fail to be impressed by the multi-million pound financial benefits the M&S management information system has directly attributed to their Plan A sustainability strategy. The scale of tangible benefits represents quite a compelling business case for the doubters, especially in a downturn and that’s before a value is attributed to the so-called intangibles like employee engagement levels; customer advocacy and good will.

Needless to say, the questions from the floor ranging from “how to simplify the engagement process” through to “how to adapt the programme for a global audience” and the resulting discussion could easily have filled the day. We’ll be pleased to share the outputs and insights at greater length if you drop us a line. Better still, join us at a future meeting of the Executive Breakfast club where in March, we’ll be joined by Professor David Clutterbuck for a lively debate on Critical Conversations and the link between communication and mentoring in bringing brands to life from within.

On this occasion we were pleased to be joined by executive contacts from the following brands: Pfizer; British Library; Barclays; HSBC; John Lewis; RBS; Fujitsu; McDonalds; Tullow Oil; Vodafone and Rio Tinto.

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6 thoughts on “Is talk of sustainability a luxury when leaders are obsessed with survival?

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