We recently considered consumer perspectives on the Sustainable Development Goals, or ‘SDGs’ – 17 globally agreed promises to our planet.

Because these goals are not currently well understood by mainstream consumers, business has an important role to play both in bringing the issues centre stage and then delivering change. We believe this challenges CSR and marketing departments to work ever more closely together to embed the SDGs at the heart of brand strategies in a meaningful way.

During the recent UKSSD conference (http://ukssd.co.uk), we brainstormed with delegates a few key ways in which companies, and brands specifically within companies, should respond to the SDGs.

  1. Act: Do the right thing, quite simply; review your current CSR strategy through the framework of the SDGs to spot the gaps and develop strategies to address your areas of weakness. So you might be working hard to reduce your carbon footprint, but is there is more you can do to look at e.g. gender equality or promoting health & wellbeing?
  2. Explore how each of your brands can develop a purpose that champions one of the issues of the SDGS. In May 2016, Unilever reveals that its brands with an explicit ‘sustainable living’ purpose which include Dove, Knorr, Persil and Lipton actually outperformed the company average, showing that consumers do respond to ‘bigger’ messages
  3. Invite your consumers to participate in whatever way they can, big or small. In seafood, for example, people want to buy sustainable fish; so make it easy for people to know what is sustainable and what isn’t. Help people appreciate new types of seafood that are more sustainable, like herring.
  4. Innovate new services that allow people to share stuff (like Uber, Airbnb) and to waste less (like food, water, clothes) in a way you benefit from rather than feel compromised. Or to do things in a different and better way, like home delivery, materials that wash at lower temperatures and dry quicker, on-line banking that gives you better control of your finances…
  5. Engage employees: Put your employees at the heart of everything you do. Win the trust and loyalty of the people behind the brands, and this will find its way to your customers, whether through customer service or through the types of goods and services you develop. M&S Plan A is a real motivator for its staff, creating a strong belief in the ethos of the company and demonstrating commitment from the top. And beware the perils of not giving due respect to your employees – witness the recent revelations around Sports Direct’s poor HR practices.
  6. Celebrate successes to date- what has already been achieved to give your customers the reassurance that action is worth taking and can make a difference.

Beyond conventional CSR, the SDGs offer a big opportunity for marketers to reshape their brands and strategy, and to stimulate more ground-breaking innovation. If the SDGs are to be a Brand Purpose for our planet, then brands and business have an exciting opportunity to be the instruments of change for a better world.