Brand experiences, be they exhibitions, trade shows or events, live or even virtual do not necessarily have the reputation of being sustainable.
Rather, they have an aura of wasteful practices, fast consumption, and short lifespans, and the label “sustainable”, certainly is not an adjective that immediately comes to mind.
And yet, we argue that “sustainable brand experiences” is not an oxymoron.
Times are changing
Our industry shares the fate of many other industries: before this topic entered public discourse and gained the attention of policy makers, sustainability was – to put it bluntly – either belittled as tree-hugger mentality or identified as a marketing gimmick.
According to a recent study of the TUM Institute for Lifelong Learning less than half of German managers know the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations which were formulated in 2015.
While the individual stance might vary, we must acknowledge that other factors, mainly economic, were very much in the driving seat. But the tide is changing. With digital and hybrid events gaining massive momentum during lockdown measures and despite a return to live events afterwards, digital and hybrid solutions will remain and have paved the way into new ways of thinking experiences and participation.
And suddenly, digitalization and sustainability are now even mentioned in the same breath by German top executives.
Nine out of ten of those surveyed by the Futurist Institute for Sustainable Transformation in cooperation with the Potsdam Institute für Climate Impact Research (PIK) and consulting firm Bain & Company consider the topic of sustainability to be at least as important as digitization over the next five years. Consumer goods giant P&G sets itself the goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across its operations and supply chain, from raw material to retailer by 2040 and the world’s biggest carmaker Volkswagen aims to be CO₂ neutral by 2050. These are just two examples of numerous commitments of brands worldwide showing that this transformation process has already begun, and that the paradigm shift towards sustainability as a key competence and necessity for the whole (business) world is regardless of the industry and whether you are on the client or agency side.
And since we are an agency with a broad and eclectic customer base, we have extensive touchpoints across various industries that increasingly demand sustainable practices. Therefore, we are tasked not only with further developing sustainable mindsets and actions across our business operations but also in defining processes that will enable us to create sustainable brand visions for our clients. We will explore the current state of sustainability in brand experiences with Johanna Soboll, Uniplan’s own head of sustainability, later in this article.
Mapping the field
A central aspect of the power of events and brand experiences is that it connects us as human beings. Central to the objective of sustainability is the maintenance and establishment of quality of life for current and future generations.
Especially in our industry sustainability has been a hot communication topic for years now, but without trickling down to production methods and supply chain: We create exceptional campaigns to showcase the sustainability of a product but the campaign itself, the used materials, the energy consumed, and finally the impact on environment and people rarely had aspects of sustainable practices. There was mostly talk, but hardly any walk.
The good thing is that there is not just one driver for sustainable development within our industry. The intrinsic motivation to act responsibly is as widespread in business as it is in private life and in public.
Society, clients, and employees demand to consume and to interact sustainably, HR departments need to attract new talents whose decision-making process is increasingly driven by diversity mindsets and companies are faced with the emergence of global and national policies for sustainability standards in various industries.
“Through continuously enhancing our sustainability performance, we not only address our corporate responsibility action points, but create real opportunity for customer loyalty, resource efficiency, employer branding and market share. On the one hand, we as a business need to become sustainable. On the other hand, we need to adhere to our client’s sustainability standards. Ideally, both will develop to become one” explains Soboll.
Uniplan's campaign for Covestro is one example of such close intertwining in the context of sustainability. Covestro firmly believes that the best solutions in these challenging times come from joining forces to develop them together. The goal of building connections for effective partnerships guides Covestro in its vision to fully align with circular economy. In order to support this mission, Uniplan thought of a completely new approach of a trade fair appearance. The 360° campaign “Crafting Connections with You” consisting of digital and physical touchpoints invited established and new partners to work together with Covestro to build a better future. Since knowledge is key, we worked with our client on content formats to share this and develop new innovations: The "Meet the Innovators" video series connected scientists, partners and the company. This resulted in content that enabled global audiences to have deeper conversations and connections at K 2022.
Another example is our Uniplan's work for Michelin. Already in 2017, the tire manufacturer unveiled its “Vision Concept” which offers a compelling illustration of how Michelin’s sustainable development model will transform tires between now and 2050. This concept became the north star for how we have created and executed brand experiences for our client since the start of the collaboration. Besides making Michelin’s vision accessible for customers, partners and employees at trade shows and events and conceiving carbon-neutral exhibition booths, we made sure to actively engage: One main pillar of the award-winning presence of Michelin at the IAA Mobility 2021 was a “Clean & Collect” campaign in which employees in a total of six teams collected trash in parks by the Isar river and in green areas and squares in Munich and bicycles were used to transport bags of garbage along the so-called “Blue Lane” to Michelin’s open space booth at Königsplatz.
“If we wanted to be provocative, we could state that efforts to ‘sustainify’ the events industry so far have been mainly shaped by client demand and RFPs. By re-thinking singular events and activations into campaigns and extending their reach from live into digital, we can impact so much, from the longevity, reach and durability of an activation down to F&B, print and sustainable sourcing of local suppliers for example. In our client events, our business choices and practices become visible.” Soboll remarks. And further: “We have great potential to become experts and drivers of this transformation.”
Where to start
The “OODA-Loop” is a great tool for orientation in unknown terrain.
OODA stands for “Observe-Orient-Decide-Act”. What we see is a lot of DAO, “Decide-Act-Observe” or even worse: DA, “Decide-Act”. It is understandable as we know action is key. The stakes are high. There is a lot to gain, but also to lose: business, market share and, last but not least, reputation. “We first have to understand our own impact”, explains Soboll. “And engage on a fundamental level. We need to understand and analyze our processes, both the risks and the opportunities.” Data is the keyword here.
“Yes, we must act, but we must not put on a show, and we must not get lost in the details.”, says Soboll. “An informed decision-making process is what we need. At the base of which lies a thorough data analysis. We need to make sure that our action points are sustainable to our business. So, we need to observe to know where we stand.”
Soboll sums up: “Let’s take a deep breath, look at our data and make sure we involve everyone who is shaping our business practices. Sustainability is a team effort, not a solo project. We need many bright minds around one table, not in ivory towers. And we at Uniplan are ready and committed to exploring this transformation with our clients and partners. We have created several working groups within business units across Europe and established a sustainability board as well as an inter-divisional co-creation thinktank which aligns with our Uniplan unique interconnected way of working. At the end of our R&D process then finally comes the implementation. To act is a fundamental building block of sustainable practices.”
Despite all enthusiasm and pioneer spirit, the risk of being accused of greenwashing is high.
The “Goldener Geier” (translates “Golden Vulture”) award in Germany is granted to the crassest greenwashing marketing campaigns. It is without doubt vitally important to single out the pretenders, be it climate-neutral flying or apparent waste avoidance to name just a few examples of this year's nominations. But shaming and canceling players who are trying, especially in a less than favorable economic climate, is not a sustainable practice either. Teamwork is key. Across agencies, industry associations and in partnership with clients. Soboll calls for positive reinforcement: “Rather than pointing fingers and shouting ‘you could have done so much more!’ say ‘that is an inspiring start!’. Take the opportunity to begin a conversation and learn. The pressure is high and the discourse on sustainability is very emotional. But I do not see the advantage in contributing to a climate of fear. This would only lead to stagnation.”
A good starting point is to define ways of collaboration within our organization. At Uniplan, we have our Code of Conduct, which all employees adhere to.
We agree to fair interaction, human rights, and environmental protection, among other things. Sustainability is a key driver of our business transformation and will be integrated into all our processes. We are establishing KPIs to identify successful actions that will lead a holistic and continuous improvement of our performance under sociocultural, economic, and environmental aspects. We gain high precision in assessing our sustainability performance from an exceptional depth of value, as we have many processes from creation to print production integrated inhouse.
Sustainability as a co-creation process
The good news: everybody is listening. And everybody is trying to “sustainify” themselves at this shared point in history.
It is a big transformative, industry-transcending co-creation mechanism that is disrupting established ways of thinking, making room for new creativity, not just within our agency and our discipline. Ten years ago, when you tried to pitch a vegan menu for a premium hospitality event, clients did not want it and caterers could not offer spectacular vegan creations, if any. As recent as 2018 a digital brand launch would have been lost in favor of a live event in a spectacular venue for a what was then called a large-scale audience of a thousand very local spectators. These days, our reach in time and space is multiplied, engagement amplified, and we choose between the live and the hybrid and the fully digital. It appears that these three states of aggregation have reached equal status and can now be activated, mixed, and matched and weighed against each other to unleash their maximum potential.
Sustainability is a team effort. “I may be the first sustainability manager at Uniplan, but I do not work solo. We are all experts in our respective fields. I may be the facilitator, the curator, the instigator, but I do not go into the processes and say ‘here is what you need to do!’. That would be foolish”, Soboll laughs. “I take the expert knowledge from my field, a policy, a best practice and help to translate these into information that my colleagues can digest to find modes of practicable application. We can only create change as a team. Together, we form the sustainability expert panel.”
To summarize, sustainability is not just a business case, an additional line item in a cost estimate or a carbon-neutral production method. It is all of this and much more: it is a mindset that will enable us to think holistically across business units into society and product development and install gradual change. A co-creative event horizon shared by many stakeholders as the starting point of this transformation process. We have been witnessing promising beginnings.
Should you be interested in finding out more about how Uniplan are thinking about this and related topics, do get in touch with our editorial team.