Sustainable development goals: A chance for brands to make real, lasting difference

The UN's development goals for the next 15 years provide a prime opportunity for brands looking to harness their ambitions to a higher purpose.

L-R: Rosa Bransky, Gail Steeden, Jessica Enoch
L-R: Rosa Bransky, Gail Steeden, Jessica Enoch

After much build-up, the UN has just launched its new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), setting the development agenda for the next decade and a half. At Flamingo, we believe the SDGs will resonate far beyond the world of development. As we’ve expounded previously, as sustainability becomes ever more central to consumer culture, brands increasingly succeed by defining a purpose beyond profit.

There is mounting macro evidence that brands that do good also do well, and what we are hearing from the respondents we work with in our day-to-day research validates this. Consumers trust that because brands are digging into their own pockets for social goods, they will have more motivation to get it right and make a deep and lasting difference. In turn, the development world is increasingly cognizant of the benefits that can flow from less traditional partnerships with the private sector.

When it comes to the SDGs specifically, it is clear that, as a recent report by the think tank ODI highlighted, “revolutionary effort” will be needed to make them happen. The ambition of the goals is laudable, but collective effort will be required if the world is to attain these targets. And this certainly means getting the private sector involved. On Friday, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Wu Hongbo, spelt this out: “In order to implement the sustainable development agenda, all available resources need to be mobilised in addition to the public financing,” he said. “I think we need policy guidance that will encourage the private sectors and the companies to come on board and support the implementation financially.”

Private-sector help on the SDGs can go far beyond simple partnerships and financing, although of course these are a great place to start. But there are several ways in which brands can use their own expertise and assets for social good. For a start, many consumer brands have access to significant comms budgets, and we see a growing number of examples of brands giving over this resource to make a difference. So do so via behaviour-change campaigns, where the world is made a better place in some way because consumers swap a negative behaviour for a neutral or positive one. A great example is Lifebuoy’s hand washing campaign, which promotes hand washing with soap to combat diarrhoea, a huge killer of children in the developing world, even today. These kinds of campaigns could have an impact on several of the SDGs, particularly around healthy lives and wellbeing, and of course sustainable consumption.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

We also see brand advocacy, where brands campaign about a particular issue, shifting public perceptions and potentially influencing cultural norms, policy or big business issues. Look at Dove’s campaign for real beauty, which has clear links to SDG 5 on female empowerment. As we’ve written elsewhere, these kinds of campaigns must be in synergy with a brand’s overall purpose if they are going to convince consumers and build equity. But the sheer scope of the SDGs presents many opportunities to make a difference while building brands.

Beyond this use of comms, one of the most powerful opportunities for brands is via innovation, where a brand leverages its products to disrupt a negative process or byproduct without having to change consumer behaviour. In many ways this is the panacea—positive change that avoids the need to disrupt established consumer habits. And the potential impact of this approach is very exciting, particularly around the goals on sustainable production, climate change and sea life. Many corporations are already taking steps in this direction, reducing reliance on inputs like palm oil and unsustainably caught fish. And this kind of social mission can form the basis for incredibly compelling, and highly credible—based as it is on concrete actions the brand has taken—advertising, exemplified by Chipotle’s “beautiful, haunting” scarecrow ad.

So the possibilities for brands are extensive, and the implications for development very exciting. We think it’s the beginning of a new era of much more integrated contribution to social good from the private, public and third sectors. Watch this space…

Rosa Bransky, Jessica Enoch and Gail Steeden, social purpose, Flamingo

 

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