Connecting with Customers through Sustainability

This post was written by Elana Boehm, a first year Duke MBA and CASE Fellow. Elana reflects on some of the marketing panels from this year’s Sustainable Business and Social Impact conference and how different companies are implementing programs and connecting with their customers around sustainability and social impact issues.

“When was your spear-in-the-chest moment?”

Christopher Gergen of Bull City Forward posed this question to the “CEOs of Change” panel, featuring John Replogle of Seventh Generation, Henry Kaestner of, Ryan Allis of iContact, and Kevin Trapani of The Redwoods Group. As each leader described that one moment when he decided to infuse the core of his company with an unwavering commitment to sustainability and social impact, I was struck yet again by the power of business to do good in the world.

While that “spear-in-the-chest moment” defines who each of these CEOs are as leaders, it also defines how their customers, employees, and suppliers have come to view and build trust in their companies. Towards the end of the panel John Replogle made a comment that has stuck with me as I think about what a successful company of the future looks like: “One day we’ll flip that question on its head and ask companies that DON’T operate sustainably, ‘how can YOU compete?'”

On the “Leveraging Sustainability as a Competitive Advantage in the Beverage Industry” panel, Fuqua alums from Fullsteam Brewery and Unilever / Lipton Tea participated in a lively discussion with the founder of Counter Culture Coffee about the role of sustainable and local sourcing in their companies. It was fascinating to hear about not only the impactful strategies each company employs, but how they communicate that commitment to their customers.

After lunch, the panel on “Using Mobile Technology for International Economic Development” questioned the hype of technology as the golden ticket in developing countries to really understand the existing banking/commerce infrastructure and the problems that mobile technology solves. Speakers from TechChange, Seeds/The Microlending Film Project, and SBI (Shorebank International) debated with Fuqua professor Ashish Arora about the depth of impact from mobile technology we can realistically expect for developing countries’ economies and access to capital.

In the final panel of the day, “Buy Less to Generate More?  Patagonia’s innovative marketing campaigns,” Craig Bida of Cone Communications and Vincent Stanley of Patagonia panel used examples of Patagonia’s “disruptive” campaigns to explore how companies can connect with customers in an effective and authentic way. Building off of the morning keynote, Vincent explained how Patagonia has established its core values and launched campaigns that stem from those values. Craig brought in his broader experience with brands to discuss the difference between launching an environmental campaign in order to build your brand, and launching a environmental campaign because it reflects a company’s core values.