Green Brand Leadership: a Fish Story

August 16, 2010

The customer is always right – so goes the mantra of every sales rep from time immemorial. But, as we know, what customers want may not be best for the planet. For some brands, this presents a dilemma: how do you satisfy consumer needs while remaining eco-responsible?

The dilemma can be quite daunting for a brand, especially if the eco-impact is caused by lifestyle choices consumers are long accustomed to. This challenge is only compounded when consumers are not yet aware that their very actions are having a detrimental effect – as no brand wants to be the bearer of bad news. Or, perhaps more challenging still, brands may find that the very behaviors and rituals that help define a brand itself turn out to perpetuate the very actions that are having a negative impact.

Whose responsibility is it to promote more sustainable consumer behaviors?

Many brands would say, it is the role of governments to regulate – and if they don’t, a corporate entity is not accountable for their failure to act. Others would say that it should be left to the discerning buyer. Should a brand itself take the lead? Some may argue yes. It is a demonstration of brand leadership, they say.

But, being out ahead of one’s customers may serve brands well only when their customers expect them to do so. Staking out a leadership position appeals to customers that want to know that they are doing good through the choices that they make.

Others may argue no. Brands sell products, not morality they might say. Worse, eco-responsible messaging may be antithetical to the experience a brand is trying to create. It is hard to enjoy pleasures guilt-free if one is constantly reminded of the impact that one is having on the planet.

But, regardless of where one nets out on this issue, one thing is clear: today, brands are increasingly left with little choice but to act – or react – whether or not their actions directly influence customer purchase decisions. Advocacy groups as well as individuals are leveraging the power of the media (and social media) to broadcast and amplify their voices to sway popular opinion.

Whether viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership or take a defensive stance, it is likely that more and more brands will have to make such choices.

One example of such tension between brands and eco-decisions recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine article by Paul Greenberg, “Tuna’s End: The Fate of the Bluefin, the Oceans and Us.” (June 27, 2010), As Greenberg writes, Nobu, the internationally acclaimed sushi restaurant chain, faces a decision today over the selection of seafood that it serves.

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna – a prized fish for sushi and sashimi – is now endangered. Continued commercial fishing may push it to extinction. Further, the timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf likely exacerbated the situation by polluting one of two known breeding grounds in the Atlantic for these fish right as mating season was to begin.

Today, Greenpeace is pressuring Nobu – in large measure because it is a category leader – to no longer serve Bluefin to its patrons. Nobu has resisted. Nobu co-owner Richie Notar noted, “The Japanese have relied on tuna and other bounties of the sea as part of their culture and history for centuries. We are absolutely appreciative of your goals and efforts within your cause, but it goes far beyond just saying that we can just taken what all of a sudden has been declared an “endangered” species off the menu. It has to do with custom, heritage and behavior.”

Arguably, Nobu’s brand identity emanates from a careful balance of adherence to the tradition and ritual of sushi – its creation, its presentation, its consumption – and hip appeal: swanky ambiance, innovative food creations and celebrity ownership. Out of balance, the brand does not deliver on the experience consumers have come to expect.

With this balance in mind, Nobu has tried to stake out a middle ground by updating its menu with the following message: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative”

Such a simple message informs patrons of the issue and then let’s each consumer make their own choice. Additionally, such phrasing invites a dialogue between the patron and server regarding food substitutes, though it is unclear as to how many patrons would be inclined to do so.

What Nobu has missed, however, is an opportunity to leverage this situation to evolve its brand appeal – keeping the balance between tradition and hip appeal while elevating each to the next level.

Nobu could find an alternative to Bluefin tuna and not jeopardize the brand, but arguably reinforce consumer perception of Nobu as hip and trendy. Greenberg asserts that what Nobu needs is a new substitute for tuna. As part of his research, he went searching for a Bluefin substitute and may have found one in a fish known as kahala. Arguably, Nobu is missing an opportunity to be one of the first to introduce kahala across its menus, reinforcing its trendy image.

Ironically, by introducing such a substitute, Nobu would not be breaking with tradition, but rather, returning to it, as Bluefin was not widely popular in sushi until just 30 years ago. It was nowhere to be found in sushi before 170 years ago.

Thus, shifting away from Bluefin and offering consumers a tasty substitute could actually enhance Nobu’s reputation for seeding new trends while maintaining close adherence to the tradition of sushi.

In this case, what is good for the brand may actually be good for the planet.

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