CSR 2.0: The Rise of a New Functionalism in Brand Building

Icebreaker Trace MeI’m always the first to argue the importance of emotion, execution and style when it comes to Super Premium brands (see my post “Fashion Forward). But it’s the fusion and careful balance of both, appearance and essence, that does the trick and so I’d like today to make a case for the latter.

There is a renewed focus on the functional in marketing and branding. And I believe that’s a good thing. Not that I want us to go back to the days of communication as mere USP penetration. Nor do I think that we could, given the overwhelming parity of products and the ever-increasing speed of innovation and imitation. But sometimes it does feel that re-calibrating our efforts and putting more emphasis on product quality and superiority wouldn’t hurt.

One argument for a more functionally driven marketing approach has been the economic situation of the past years. The recession let added value pale in comparison to true value. Bling suddenly seemed frivolous in a world of so much blight.

But, far more important – and lasting – in my view, is the socio-political shift that has happened over the past decades. People have grown skeptical and critical everywhere and towards everything, lately even in China. Credibility and respect towards all kinds of institutions has consistently been eroding, in politics as much as in economic contexts.

At first, this made companies and brands turn to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) as the new panacea. Hardly anybody today who doesn’t claim to be ecologically conscious, helping underprivileged kids or supporting cancer patients. Yet, unfortunately, this whole CSR craze has in many ways accelerated what it was supposed to counteract. Instead of regaining trust and credibility it has led people to become even more disillusioned and to a large degree outright cynical. Because the realities were in many companies only very loosely connected to their philosophies. Ecologically minded brands were seen dumping their waste like anybody else, supporters of Unicef have been found building their goodness on child labor. And then of course there’s been Lance Armstrong, living strong but totally wrong, as it turned out.

This is where and why, I see the second wave of CSR, CSR 2.0 so to speak, and a general shift towards functionalism taking hold. It seems that more and more companies are finally understanding that the only way out of this downward spiral of disappointment and thus disengagement is an honest reset towards sincerity and integrity. No more green washing or fig leafing but a true to the core embrace of product sustainability – socially, ecologically and functionally.

A lot of longstanding luxury houses have always held themselves to higher standards, ethically but also when it comes to product quality of course. Just think of the perennial hero of quiet superiority and integrity, Hermes. Or take Coco Chanel and her quest for the best blossoms of Grasse, which led to one of the earliest and probably longest living examples of vertical integration and quality control. An early 20th century case of “farm to fragrance” so to speak. Interesting to note though, that lately you’ll find the brand touting this legendary dedication to detail and depth in advertorials and PR pushes again. Perhaps to make up for some misguided publicity stunts like that god-awful Brad Pitt commercial, which made a lot of people flock to the shelves but just as many lose their faith in the true sincerity of the brand.

Chanel retelling it's story of vertical integration in 2013.

Chanel retelling it’s story of vertical integration in 2013.

Other examples of traditional badge labels going intrinsic are of course Louis Vuitton or Gucci and their recent craftsmanship campaigns. More interesting are however the likes of Lincoln, the Ford subsidiary that lost a lot of luster over the past decades together with other US car brands and hasn’t always been known for unquestionable integrity – product and otherwise. It’s been recently re-launched as “The Lincoln Motor Company” with an extensive push including this commercial and print ad.

Launch ad Lincoln Motir Company, NY Times, February 2013

Launch ad Lincoln Motor Company, NY Times, February 2013

Now, you can argue that it’s a ruse and actually the opposite of what I’m talking about when a brand pretends to be its own company while it is in fact part of another, sharing not only corporate structures and practices but also technology and production with supposed (lower priced) competitors. Yet, I think it’s an intriguing and quite indicative example of the new mindset in marketing when the spot opens with the words “This is about moving forward while looking back” and the print ad closes with “But words are nothing without the actions that prove them. … Call it luxury. Call it engineered humanity. We’re calling it the Lincoln Motor Company. A completely reinvented wheel, with you at its center.” At least the marketing managers and their agency (Hudson Rouge) recognized the need for corporate separation and dedication of their unit in order to re-build their traditional superiority and unique identity. That this cannot be a case of external re-painting but this requires a fundamental re-think and re-org of their entire venture; that they need to start at the core and re-construct inside out, starting with the product and thus with production. And, hopefully, that this will and can only be successful if it ultimately goes hand-in-hand with a total integrity – even though the structural one might still have to wait.

BTW: The headline “Does the world need another luxury car? Not really.” is a nice example of an honest, underplayed approach to marketing, which I like to call “concessionary communication” – conceding existing perceptions and truths before trying to overcome them. Even though in this case it becomes clear far to soon that Lincoln doesn’t really acknowledge the reality of a high-end glut but simply wants to reassert themselves as not just “another” but one of the original luxury automobiles.

Another, completely different example of a down-to the core, functionally driven approach to successful brand building is Icebreaker, the merino active wear company. It’s been around for almost 20 years and very well known in outdoorsy communities, but it’s story and very inspiring, purpose driven success isn’t discussed as often.

An Icebreaker hangtag

An Icebreaker hangtag

I was reminded of the brand on a recent trip through its home country, New Zealand’s South Island, and the deeper I dove into it, the more intrigued I became – and the more I believed this brand to be a true beacon for marketing in the 21st century. We will put together an in-depth case study on Icebreaker in the following weeks, in this context I just want to focus on their “Baa Code” – an ingenious and fun use of modern technology to drive home that archaic sense of soul-full, personalized “good” in the age of mass-production. Every Icebreaker product is outfitted with a Barcode (yes, Baa Code is a quirky play on words between that ubiquitous black signage and the unique “language” of the products natural source, the merino sheep) that lets you trace your garment’s wool down to the individual sheep and its pastures: “You can see the living conditions of the sheep, meet the growers who raised them, and follow the production process through to the finished garment.” It gives you a sense of quality, integrity and “connectedness” in this globalized world that you usually only find as a locavore at your local green market, but certainly not at athletic outfitters. It elevates the products to almost one-of-a-kind artisanal goods, and that despite the fact that actual production has lately been moved to China. Now again, it may appear as somewhat disingenuous, to evoke the pristine nature of Southland while the products are in fact “machine-knit” in the outskirts of Guangzhou or so. But Icebreaker is extremely transparent about all steps and aspects of their supply chain, including their Chinese manufacturing and they claim to adhere to the highest standards and ISO norms – no matter where and regarding their animal as well as their worker welfare.

Icebreaker hangtag

Icebreaker hangtag

Thus, Icebreaker doesn’t need any CSR programs or grandiose gestures of doing good. Their entire enterprise is built on a sustainable, principled and very purposeful approach that permeates everything from sourcing to production to every garment and piece of marketing. And that is what I call The New Functionalism: Building brands around products that aren’t just superior in function but also in production. Because then you can proudly focus on just that – the true value you create. You don’t have to escape into surface-emotionalizing through added value or alibi CSR campaigns. Because the emotions connected to an ethical production of ecologically and socially sound products that are not only functionally but also morally superior are the most beautiful emotions you can share. And they will most likely be much more reliable in supporting a super premium price point – as well as securing customer loyalty and trust, perhaps even engagement and advocacy. A true dedicated community as we like to call it these days. And all this driven by pure and good old function. Now that’s a simple but solid foundation to build a brand on.

Icebreaker Baacode

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