A different sort of change, by Kantar Insights’ Fran Owens

Sustainability could be one of the greatest leadership challenges of our era, says Kantar Insights’ Fran Owens.

By Fran Owens, CCO at Kantar Insights Middle East, and board member of The Marketing Society Middle East.

The topic of sustainability tends to invoke a mixed response in the Middle East – from a view that it’s not meaningful to the region, to one that it is relevant to every living organism on this planet. While not a total lefty, I’m definitely on the side of the latter.

The sustainability conversation needs proper attention and focus. It needs to be front-and-centre for all forward-looking leaders sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, the Middle East from a government and public perspective, is leading the way on aspects of the sustainability agenda. And, from a business perspective, while there are undoubtedly some incredible proponents in this space, it’s also fair to say there are many laggards.

It is clear that if humanity is ever to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, as laid out by the United Nations, by 2030, no single part of society can do it alone.

Is a business sustainable if it uses recycled materials in packaging but doesn’t provide safe or decent work for its employees? Or employs children as part of its labour force? In fact, do we all even know the depth of our own supply chains and how far this goes?

Somehow in man’s efforts to progress, we‘ve managed to prioritise profit over people and left many behind.

So, what has all this got to do with marketing?

Brands and businesses don’t exist in a vortex. They are part of the tightly woven fabric that knits societies and communities together.

They provide meaning and structure to people, their interactions and their lives. They are not everything, but they are something. And as they provide meaning, they also have a part to play in driving and supporting change.

Covid-19 and the brutal murder of George Floyd and the #blacklivesmatter movement brought alive not only many of the inequalities that we allowed to exist in our societies, but also how very deeply entrenched some of these are. One of the most insidious ways to do the wrong thing is to dress it up as normality.

As humans took their foot off the proverbial accelerator, we saw our planet able to breathe with fewer emissions and wildlife returning to habitats previously deserted. This moment in time profoundly captured the stress we have been putting our beautiful planet under.

LVMH, F1, Unilever, Nike and so many more brands are examples of what we all can be and do when we step up to the plate. They are examples of brands that both stand for and kneel with people and say, ‘This matters, we think this too, we are with you.’

While economies and businesses scramble to recover from the impact of Covid-19 and brand owners seek to understand the subsequent changing consumer attitudes and behaviours, we need to continue to reflect and act purposefully. These tragic events, these crises provide us with an opportunity to do better and be better. They shine a light on areas we need to step up in if we are going to make any meaningful difference whatsoever. We need to make sure these realisations don’t fall off our radar as we resume our build-back-better mentality of driving our businesses forward.

I was born in the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s – but my grandparents had to go to war during the 1916 Rising to achieve that for people like me to enjoy. And they paid at times a high price for this.

The values that underpin my model of the world have primarily been built and reinforced over the years by the view that if you want things to be better, thinking and feeling isn’t enough. You must do.

And so here we come to the elephant in the room. Another word for sustainability is change. Change requires courage. It requires people to stand up and be counted. To think beyond the immediate task (which includes making profit), to the broader agenda and implications. Not just to execute but to excel while deploying the moral compass. And the problem with this is that in many businesses that’s what leaders sadly don’t do. They don’t excel. They execute. They don’t stand up. They can’t be counted on. They fail in the basics of right and wrong.   

Whose job is it to drive this change? The CEOs? In my view, yes – to set the direction. But leaders of change are found at all levels and in all businesses. 

We need to keep asking questions of ourselves in our businesses as leaders, as colleagues and as custodians of this planet for the generations to come. We need to lead ourselves, our brands, and our businesses better. We need to be accountable.

Brands have their part to play, and we can do our bit. As brand custodians and business leaders we have a duty of care to our planet, our people and ourselves to focus efforts on helping achieve those Sustainable Development Goals by bringing them into the mainstream consciousness. This will require cross-community collaborative efforts, intelligence and resilience, united and working towards the same objective.

Ultimately, it’s down to choice. What legacy do we as CEOs, CMOs, brand managers, agency partners and human beings want to leave behind?

Sustainability is unquestionably one of the leadership challenges of our era, but it’s one we need to face head-on if we want to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come. Inaction is not an option.

Here are three simple things you as a brand leader can do today to drive real change:

1. Don’t accept the status quo. Regularly ask yourself what you, your brand and your business can do to make things better.

2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Even if you are the only voice in the room… so far.

3. Act with purpose. Take quick and immediate action to improve things.