Glass-Boxing: Why Brands That Prioritise Social Responsibility Will Win

Glass-Boxing: Why Brands That Prioritise Social Responsibility Will Win

In this guest post, Edge’s senior strategist, Abbie Dubin-Rhodin (pictured below), argues its the brands with a social conscious that are already winning over customers…

For brands to contend in an ever-changing world, they need to be ‘glass box’ ready. Brands that prioritise a culture of social responsibility are well equipped to capitalise on this trend, while the majority will be left reacting.


Glass-boxing with blockchain

Last year, the innovation and trend forecasting company, Trend Watching, identified ‘glass box brands’ as the new normal moving forward. Before, we had ‘black box brands’, those brands for which carefully crafted mythologies could be cultivated based only on the snippets of information the business shared – a one-way stream of communications. Today, thanks to consumer demand for greater authenticity and transparency, the experiences that make up ‘your brand’ include every facet – even the non-consumer-facing parts – of your business. In short, your culture is now your brand. And if people don’t like your culture, or your practices, or your board, then they won’t like your brand.

While more businesses are getting wise to the ‘glass box’ reality, smart brands have been living this way for years. Brands like Timberland, which partnered with Smallerholder Farmers Alliance (SFA) in 2015 to explore potential ways to contribute to Haiti’s agricultural economy in a more sustainable way.

Together (and with other partners), they developed the Blockchain Cotton Project, which uses blockchain technology to track cotton harvested at participating farms across every stage of the supply chain. As described in a recent article in Fast Company, better visibility into the supply chain provides an easier pathway to certifying that the cotton is organic, a status for which studies have shown consumers are willing to pay up to 25% more. To close the loop, Timberland also “committed to meeting up to a third of its global cotton needs from Haiti – 2,750 metric tons a year – assuming the project can meet quality and cost targets.”

Brands with a conscience aren’t a new idea, but the reality of ‘glass box branding’ has made having a conscience into more of a necessity than a nice to have. Fashion is notoriously guarded about its supply chain and sourcing, and reports of abusive practices in garment factories around the world continue to punctuate the evening news. By contributing to the rebirth of cotton farming in Haiti – creating jobs, increasing household incomes, and stimulating the economy – and doing so in a way that’s sustainable, transparent and supported by disruptive technology, Timberland is setting itself apart from other fashion retailers where it matters. 

Patagonia goes local to make a global difference

For many brands, social responsibility is a supportive silo, typically the purview of the stakeholder relationship team, intended to build positive sentiment and good PR. For a small set of brands, however, social responsibility is as integral to their success as the products they sell. These are the brands that have ushered in consumers’ demands for transparency, the forefathers of the glass box trend, if you will.

Take Lush, a beauty brand that attracts customers as much for its gorgeous built, delicious smelling bath products, as it does for its ethical sourcing and rejection of animal testing. Or TOMS, the clothing and accessories company that donates to a person in need (across a number of causes) for every product sold – known as the TOMS One For One model.

Then there’s Patagonia, the outdoor sporting retailer that’s kept environmentally responsible practices at its core since founding in 1973. By making environmental sustainability a core business objective, rather than a good-will afterthought, Patagonia has ensured every product is not only designed for commercial viability but environmental friendliness – after all, Patagonia rightly understands you won’t need any of their products if there is no environment left to enjoy. Over time, this commitment has allowed Patagonia to take a louder, more political stance in the space. This shift has manifested in a number of ways, the most recent of which includes the launch of Patagonia Action Works (PAW).

Described in a recent piece on Mashable, Patagonia Action Works is “a digital platform that informs people of local activism opportunities in the categories of land, water, climate, communities and biodiversity, so they can easily take action and help preserve the planet”. Patagonia already has a robust digital presence, including their blog ‘The Cleanest Line’, and project-specific assets like Patagonia Provisions and Worn Wear, that allows interested visitors to get a full picture of what Patagonia does to help better the environment. With PAW, however, Patagonia is offering consumers myriad ways to get involved themselves.

One of PAW’s strengths lies in Patagonia’s decision to keep it local. One of the main struggles non-profits and other cause-driven organisations have is maintaining an active base of volunteers and donators, because people feel that the problems being tackled are simply too large for their efforts to make a difference. By providing local opportunities to get involved, PAW brings activism to a more digestible scale. Rather than charging visitors with tackling a complex global issue, they are shown projects that allow them to make a difference they can experience first-hand.

In building PAW, Patagonia lays the framework for a truly engaged community of consumers who can act as informal brand ambassadors, furthering the company’s own environmental goals in a way branded communications never could.

A black box brand attempts transparency

Phillip Morris International (PMI), creators of the Marlboro man and life-long deniers of the link between cigarettes and cancer, seem to have turned over a new leaf. At least that’s what you’d be excused for thinking based on the full-page ad  the company took out in UK newspapers, stating their “New Year’s resolution is to give up smoking”.

As a marketer, I can appreciate good stunt marketing when I see it. And as a stunt, the ad did its job. It made people stop, it got them talking – in short, it went about as viral as a print ad can outside trade circles.

Morality aside – because that’s an article unto itself – buying the hype PMI is selling here puts the onus on us to abandon the basic principles of brand building as we know them. If a brand is the promise made to consumers, delivered and solidified through repeated interactions, then the brand PMI has delivered to the world is that of ‘THE cigarette brand.’ To believe PMI wants to “get out of cigarettes” means abandoning everything they have communicated to the world for the last 50 years.

This is a prime example of a black box brand attempting – poorly, I may add – to make consumers believe they are a glass box brand. You’ll notice it falls significantly short of meeting the outcomes Patagonia and Timberland have achieved with their efforts. It’s because it’s disingenuous.

Glass box means glass box. It means I can go to PMI’s website after reading their ad and see that, while it’s “quitting smoking” in countries like the UK, where the government and NGO watchdogs have implemented measures that have effectively lowered rates of smoking, it continues to heavily market them across developing markets in Africa and southern Asia.

By communicating one thing in marketing, while covertly continuing to do the exact opposite in practice, PMI demonstrates their fundamental inability to be a glass box brand. PMI, like a lot of brands, thrive in a black box world. Their ability to be profitable (at least today) requires a dissonance between their communications and their business practices.

Traditionally black box brands can become glass box brands, of course. It requires going beyond the marketing to assess what your brand stands for today and what you want it to stand for in the future. Confront the practices – be they corporate, cultural, product, hiring, or other factors – which are holding your brand back and make the necessary changes.

In a world of PMIs, be a Patagonia.


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Abbie Dubin-Rhodin Edge

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