Podcast: Sustainable Life Media CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz on Turning Social Challenges Into Business Opportunities

By Insider InSites Podcasts Archives
Cover image for  article: Podcast:  Sustainable Life Media CEO KoAnn Skrzyniarz on Turning Social Challenges Into Business Opportunities

Since 2004 KoAnn Skrzyniarz (more easily and commonly known as just "KoAnn") has been a force of -- and for --- nature.  As Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Life Media, which produces the internationally respected Sustainable Brands community, she has inspired a global community of change agents to turn environmental and social challenges into business opportunities for companies.  The eponymous conferences have grown from a single annual event in Monterey, CA, to be in 13 countries with active communities going on everywhere from Turkey to Thailand, Cape Town to Copenhagen.  In this podcast, KoAnn, a former business-to-business marketing executive, explains how they've built a "bridge to better brands" and how companies from Procter & Gamble to CNN are embracing sustainability for their -- and everyone's -- greater good.  The conversation, which took place during the 2018 ANA Masters of Marketing, has been edited for length and clarity.  Listen here and subscribe to all our Insider InSites episodes via AppleStitcherGooglePlaySpotify,  iHeartRadio and now on TuneIn.

E.B. Moss:  How did Sustainable Brands come about?

KoAnn Skrzyniarz:  We started 15 years ago with the recognition that we were going to be facing significant environmental and social challenges in this century.  At the time, the narrative was that NGOs and governments were going to save us and that business was the enemy.  I felt that if we couldn't engage business in driving innovation and helping change the way that we operate our global economy, we were going to be sunk.  Our hypothesis was that the market drivers might create new business and brand opportunities.

Moss:  When I first went to Sustainable Brands in 2008, very high-profile brands were already attending, and we called it CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility.  Today you don't want to label it onerously as "responsibility."

Skrzyniarz:  This is an issue that's core to business strategy for the future [versus a "responsibility"].  For example, Marc Pritchard, the Chief Marketing Officer of the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world [Procter & Gamble], has really come around on this front.  He's got the full support and engagement of his executive team and working on transforming their business with sustainability at the center.

Moss:  Marc spoke [recently] at the ANA Masters of Marketing and gave a very passionate plea to brands to really embrace this focus, and to do well by doing good.

Skrzyniarz:  There's been a lot of conversation at the ANA about the challenges in the industry, that more than half the Fortune 500 companies are in decline, and to refocus marketing around driving growth.  The beautiful thing is that now there are more and more examples that demonstrate how embedding environmental and social good into your brand does drive sales, does drive growth, does drive brand loyalty, makes brands relevant again -- this is a pathway to fixing all of that.

Moss:  Stats show it's very important to consumers; they prefer the brand that displays sensitivity and sustainability, as Marc showed in P&G's campaign "Love Over Bias."  (As you know, MediaVillage is very focused on D&I as well, with our Advancing Diversity Honors -- where we'll be honoring Marc Pritchard as well as ANA's Bob Liodice and others at CES.)

Skrzyniarz:  Beautiful.  P&G is seeing the halo effect of its efforts on brand reputation and sales, which is part of what's driving his confidence. Obviously, racial and other sorts of conflicts between groups of people are on the rise, and that's a massive risk for sustainability.  There are social issues that put us all at risk, as well as environmental issues.  Now is the perfect time for the Brands for Good coalition that we are launching.

Moss:  Speaking of brands you have a pretty illustrious lineup at every conference.  In addition to P&G you recently had speakers from AFLAC, Salesforce, Thompson-Reuters and Nat Geo.  Can you share an example of how a focus on sustainability has lifted brand value and business?

Skrzyniarz:  It's hard to pick just one.  AFLAC talked about their social purpose endeavor with a pet duck to help kids with cancer express their emotions and feelings.  There's "Love Has No Labels" and the #SeeHer and "The Talk" campaigns from P&G, which is also now doing a lot of experimentation around environmental impact innovation.  For example, the campaign they launched last year; recovering ocean plastics to use for their Head & Shoulders bottles has been a really popular campaign that's created sales lift for them.

Moss:  This even goes beyond those who produce hard goods.  Look at a Nat Geo and all of their charitable and environmental efforts.

Skrzyniarz:  And CNN -- the commitment they've made to use their platform to help inform and up-level people's understanding about cultural diversity.  We are really advocating for whole company organizational transformation.  We've created a brand transformation roadmap [available in its entirety] for our corporate members -- a very large spectrum of people across many market sectors, which includes Unilever, Nestle, Mars, Dell, IBM, Ford and Keurig, among others.

The matrix defines five core principles of what it would mean to actually become a sustainable brand.  Then five levels of maturity against that ambition, so that companies can self-assess where they are on the journey.  The principles start with having a purpose beyond profit that is embedded into everything the company does and that everybody at the company understands, to using the power of brand for system-wide influence.  It recognizes that brands are the ones that are really creating cultural aspiration.  We are the entities that defined what the good life looks like and should look like in the last century.

We're now at a time when we recognize that that status quo is not going to lead to a healthy future ... and we need to redefine what the good life looks like.  Companies need to aspire to net-positive operations and portfolio management of more environmentally and socially effective value propositions.  They must also be transparent and aligned in their corporate governance and moving along the journey on all five vectors [to generate consumer trust and relevance].

Moss:  And we have to balance how we communicate with what we communicate.

Skrzyniarz:  Yes, to be not necessarily perfect but authentic in communication.

Moss:  Are you still hopeful in our current political environment?

Skrzyniarz:  More so, actually, in a strange way.  Of course, companies would like to have a legislative regulatory landscape that makes it easier for them to make tough decisions and level the playing field, but while hope for that has disappeared that doesn't change the reality that all the companies we deal with understand.  For example, I was just talking to a large coffee company which acknowledges that the world is running out of coffee.  The world is running out of chocolate.  We are having commodity shortages and conflict minerals.  There are all kinds of things that are pressing business issues that these companies can't ignore.

And they are now starting to come together in ways that I've never seen, to work on systems changes.  [There's a] willingness, even for competitors, to be working together.

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