Perhaps because of the BP oil spill, or perhaps because of the mounting frequency in climate-related disasters, there was a shift in consumer attitudes in 2010.

But there is another factor that’s influencing actual shifts in production models: social media marketing.
In the ‘Key Takeaway’ section of Brand Z’s ‘Top 100 Global Brands’ report that was released last week, on page 100, the authors from Millward Brown Optimor wrote:

CSR is nice but not enough. Make social action relevant to the brand and sincere. Consumers dismiss window-dressing. Fix any supply chain problems that potentially harm people and minimize impact on the environment… To err is human. To cover up is unforgivable. Especially in a transparent, socially-networked world.

The theory is that the more brand is plugged into demand, the more pressure they’ll be under to change their production model.

And social media marketing is helping to create these connections at a level of intimacy and precision that was unimaginable even two or three years ago.

Brands will need to evolve new sustainable models of production partially because otherwise they’ll deplete their inventories and reach their ceilings in terms of available resources. But they will also have to change their production models to meet the expectations of a more informed connected pool of consumers—consumers with whom they are intimate and conversant in a new way.  As Brand Z’s report announces on page 68: “[The emerging demographic landscape is] an intensely social cohort for whom interconnection and engagement are fundamental. Though older generations will continue to hew to a more individualistic style, technology will force them to be more social.”

To look at the nuts and bolts of how the conversation with brands is being managed and guided at a macro level, I reviewed a talk that Jason Clay, vice-president of the WWF, gave at a TED conference in July 2010 entitled, “How Big Brands Can Help Save Biodiversity.” This talk came as all of these changes that Millward Brown Optimor recorded in their 2011 report were still evolving and being registered.

Jason Clay is a mover and shaker in terms of not only getting brands to pay attention to their consumer demographics, but in sitting them down at roundtables and convincing them to talk to one another.  In an ever-more interconnected and environmentally at-risk world, his pioneering strategies at starting conversations between big brands must be our model moving forward.

Jason Clay grew up on a small farm in Missouri.  “We lived on less than a dollar a day for about 15 years.”  He got a scholarship and went to a university, “I studied anthropology and international agriculture.” He got a doctorate, with the intention to give back. “I was gonna work with small farmers, I was gonna help alleviate poverty, I was gonna work on international development.”

He did quantitative research in refugee camps in Sudan for years—a task that eventually left him existentially exhausted and disillusioned.  He met Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry’s) at a Grateful Dead benefit in 1988, and together they launched Rainforest Crunch.

Cohen asked Clay, “What can I do to save the rainforest?”  Clay asked him, “Well, Ben, what do you do [for a living]?”  Cohen said he made ice cream.  Clay told him, “You’ve got to make a rainforest ice cream. And you have to use nuts from the rainforest to show that the rainforest is worth more as rainforest than as pasture land.

They had a $4.5 million line of credit, and 22% of the global Brazil nut market. They paid two to three times what everyone else was paying and completely transformed the market. Everyone else raised their prices.  ‘All boats rose.’ Fifty companies signed with them, 200 products came out, generating $100 million.  “It failed,” Clay says.  “Why did it fail?” His answer: The project failed because the people who were making money by cutting down the forest were not the same people as the people who made money from Brazil nuts. “We were attacking the wrong drivers.”

Since his experience with the Rainforest Crunch campaign, Clay’s mission has been to ‘create collusion’ between corporations and markets.

In order to face the problems coming over the horizon, Clay believes that “Sustainability has to be a pre-competitive issue…and we need collusion to address it.”

We need groups to work together that never have. We need Cargill to work with Bungy. We need Coke to work with Pepsi. We need Oxford to work with Cambridge… We need to begin to manage this planet as if our life depended on it—because it does.

Clay identified35 regions that are the most important to bio-diversity, and the most threatened.  He also identified the 15 commodities that pose the greatest threats to these regions. He identified 300 to 500 companies that control 70% of the trade of the 15 most significant companies.  Of these companies, he identified 100 companies who control 25% percent of the market in these markets.

If these companies demand sustainable products, they’ll pull 40-50% of production. Companies can push producers faster than consumers can.”

Clay has devoted his work in the past few years to communicating with these companies—and creating a space for them to communicate with each other. He’s launched global standards for salmon aquaculture. He’s started to convince Cargill to undertake important research to completely transform the way that palm oil is produced to make the industry more sustainable.

For me, the simultaneous emergence of brand importance leveraged by social media, combined with the roll out of consulting strategies like the one Clay is innovating at WWF are positive signs in a cycle that’s been frightening both in terms of markets and the environment. We are learning how markets and environments depend upon each other. People like Clay are leading the way, but the millions of consumers plugged into social media marketing will be one of the forces driving the change.

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