Ethical Performance
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Refreshing the art of good story telling

November 2015

Sustainability teams must work more closely with marketing if they are to realise the value of corporate social responsibility for their brands, says Michael Dickstein, director of global sustainable development at the beer giant Heineken International

Engaging consumers with stories of sustainability performance, practices, innovations and ideals has become an all-important part of corporate marketing and communications – not only in making sure that what a business deems to be important is aligned to the values of its customers, but also in mitigating the reputational risks attached to misleading consumers with bogus claims or being targeted by NGO campaigns.

Some are getting it right. Unilever’s so-called ‘sustainable living brands’ are best responding to increasing customer demand for responsibility and delivering stronger and faster growth – accounting for half the company’s growth in 2014 and growing at twice the rate of the rest of the business.

The outdoor clothing company Patagonia is another example of how high levels of engagement have built a loyal consumer base, fully-wedded to its anti-fast-fashion philosophy.

But examples are thin on the ground. And that’s because getting it right is tough, according to Michael Dickstein, director of global sustainable development at the beer giant Heineken International. “It takes time to initiate the changes required internally – to set up targets, introduce a governance structure and measure the impact of the work you are doing,” he says.

The company, which owns brands including Amstel and Strongbow, has been talking about responsibility for years now. Launched in 2009, its ‘Brewing a Better World’ strategy covers energy and water use, sourcing and encouraging responsible drinking, among other issues. But it is only in the last couple of years that the business has attempted to link its key sustainability messages to the consumer, admits Dickstein.

So, what changed? Well, he and his colleagues in the sustainable development team had to understand that brand communications on sustainability had to be consumer-relevant and support brand equity. “In the 40 markets where we launched our responsible drinking campaign ‘Sunrise’ our business was viewed as the most responsible beer brand. With our ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ campaign our brand equity rose by 9%,” he says.

“You can see the progress we have made. Now we more effectively link our marketing and sustainability specialists together and are able to bring the story to life for consumers.”

But talking about drinking cultures is one thing. Talking about green issues like waste, energy and recycling, is something altogether different. Dickstein says that there’s a real need to “understand how brands satisfy consumer needs.” He nods to Heineken’s Dutch wheat beer brand, Wieckse. For the last three years, it has been positioned it as being “brewed by the sun” against a backdrop of the 3,600 solar panels on the top of the brewery that produces the beer in the Netherlands.

Similarly, the cider brand Strongbow had a campaign last year which focused on the naturalness and quality aspects of the apple orchards it sources from.

As part of Heineken’s commitment to source 60% of its apples from sustainable sources by the end of the year, it has positioned Strongbow’s sustainability story with quality and regionality aspects to create messaging that really resonates with consumers. “Each of our 250 brands worldwide is positioned differently – and you have to play into the DNA of the brand and work out which CSR aspects are most relevant.”

To make it work, sustainability teams must work more closely with marketing, he adds. With a legacy of having to “fight the perception of CSR people being ‘police agents’” internally, Dickstein says that the key to winning hearts and minds in a company is to “understand the needs of marketing and the language they use”.

And the proof points offered by the likes of the ‘Dance More, Drink Slow’ campaign help too. “The first results of the responsible drinking campaigns gave our marketing teams more confidence. Now those programmes are owned and embraced by marketing.”

Dickstein also believes in the power of partnerships in supporting ongoing consumer engagement. Earlier this year, Heineken announced it was teaming up with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to focus on renewable energy in Africa, water stewardship initiatives for its breweries in water scarce areas and local sourcing. “In the past, companies looked at how to improve things on their own. Nowadays, in a world of Sustainable Development Goals, working in partnership, with peers, government, NGOs, and international organisations like UNIDO becomes crucial to resolve some of the issues we are facing.”

What about the opportunity to better engage with a new, Millennial generation? All of the evidence points to the fact that more and more people do care about corporate responsibility – not just about how much pollution a company creates, but also how it treats its workers or whether it pays enough tax. The latest BBMG and GlobeScan research claims that consumption is being redefined by a growing group of ‘Aspirationals’ – people who are just as interested in shopping, style and fashion as they are in responsible consumption and demanding that the brands they know and love act in the best interests of society.

However, Dickstein is cautious about the supposed opportunity presented. “Consumers still vary from market to market. In Austria, beer consumers have a different perception to those in France, Brazil or Singapore,” he says. “While consumers are very favourable about sustainable products as such, the percentage of consumers actually paying a price premium for sustainable products is somewhat lower.

“And if you talk about millennials, a report just came out that the reason they might not necessarily go out of their way to buy sustainable-friendly products, is because they expect big companies and brands to do this – so in fact their expectations have risen.”

Heineken International | Global | corporate communications


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