Use “The Force” to Guide your Brand Towards Sustainability (May 17, 2012)

‘Branding’ is a vital component of any successful modern business strategy.  But what defines a brand?  How do you know if your branding is effective?  How do you know if your brand is truly conveying the message that defines your organization’s vision, commitment and values?  How do you ensure that the energy you put into your sustainability initiatives is working to maximize your brand’s appeal?

On May 17, 2012, over 100 sustainability change agents gathered to listen and share with Tim Faveri, Director, Sustainability and Responsibility, at Tim Hortons.  Faveri presented his understanding of what truly defines the Tim Hortons brand – it is about so much more than coffee.  Their stores are owned and operated by local community members, and the company is actively committed to community building at both the local and national level through such initiatives as support of local sports teams and the Tim Hortons Children’s Foundation.  Tim Hortons is part of the Canadian national identity.  It is a challenge to find a Canadian who doesn’t know the meaning of the term ‘Double double’ or can’t direct you from their home to the closest ‘Timmies’.

One of the great things about the TSSS audience is that while people aren’t afraid to ask hard questions, they recognize that hard questions often don’t have simple answers. When asked why the company isn’t focusing more on reducing litter from their disposable cups, Faveri outlined initiatives such as in store recycling stations, the 10-cent price reduction for customers who bring in their own mugs and their Litter Awareness Program.  But he also explained to the audience that while the cups are the waste that is most visible to consumers, it is not the major component of the waste stream from the operation of Tim Hortons restaurants.  That dubious distinction is held by organic waste and Tim Hortons has made real strides in reducing organic waste in recent years.

After Faveri addressed the audience for about 40 minutes, the small group breakout session began with the question, “Understanding that resources in any company are limited and that choices have to be made, should Tim Hortons direct its energy on the visible (e.g. cups) or the invisible (e.g. supply chain)?”

Many of the small discussion groups began by immediately arguing amongst themselves over whether this was even a ‘fair’ question.  The premise of the question seemed to assume that Tim Hortons should make a choice between the potential brand benefit of reducing visible cup waste from their operations and the potential cost savings of supply chain initiatives.  Many in the audience argued that this was a distinction that was both simplistic and unhelpful.  Branding and cost savings are certainly not mutually exclusive.  Initiatives to reduce and/or recycle cup waste can realize both immediate and long term cost savings – Faveri shared the story of how Tim Hortons became the first “quick-service” restaurant company in North America to use a waste material (hot drink cup) and manufacture it into another product in their restaurant (carry-out tray).  These are the types of innovations that are born of a commitment to sustainability and lead to new, more fiscally responsible, ways of doing business.

The breakout groups also generated a number of ideas for Tim Hortons to explore. For example, one group suggested that one of the challenges of getting customers to bring in their own reusable travel mugs, despite a 10 cent incentive, is that Tim Hortons’ highly successful ‘Rrrroll up the rim to win’ campaign acts as encouragement to use disposable cups – it was suggested that this could be resolved by offering two ‘free entries’ in this contest to anyone who brings in their own mug.

While fictional character Yoda of Star Wars may have believed, “Do or do not… there is no try,” the real-life attendees at TSSS events recognize that it is the trying that is a vital part of the sustainability journey.  While Tim Hortons still has many milestones they hope to reach, they continue to move forward with a clear vision, defined goals and commitments expressed in their annual Sustainability and Responsibility Report, and a genuine understanding of the complexity of the issues that they face.

One of the most complex issues faced by Tim Hortons is no surprise, given the nature of their business – determining the most sustainable approach to their coffee supply chain.  As Faveri explained, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, behind petroleum.  A simplistic view of the coffee supply chain might suggest that Tim Hortons should simply source their coffee from one of the established eco-labels such as ‘Fair Trade’ but Tim Hortons has taken a different approach, one driven by ethics and transparency.  Through the Tim Hortons Coffee Partnership, they strive to empower farmers in key economic, social and environmental areas that will improve their coffee business and their lives.

We conclude with another thought from Yoda.  When young Luke Skywalker said to Yoda, “I can’t believe it,” Yoda replied simply, “That is why you fail.”  TSSS is about bringing people together who know that the first step in succeeding along their journey is to believe in the proven business case for sustainability, no matter how many fair or unfair challenges they may face along the way.