Sustainability as Brand Actuation
11 October 2023

At its essence, sustainability is a brand movement. In the organisational context, it is an evolution of the brand towards greater consciousness of its relationships – human and more than human – and the reciprocities that sustain them. This process of brand actuation takes place as material social and environmental aspects are more effectively considered in the organisation’s thinking, decision making and action, together with other aspects. Brand actuation is how we take our place in the world. As pedestrian as this may sound, it is a radical and potentially transformative process. 

In indigenous terms, it embodies the Southern African concept of hlonipha which is often translated as ‘reverence’. According to Wikipedia, the word ‘actuation’ is a type of self-realisation and referred to in Aristotle’s philosophy of entelechy. “Actuality, in contrast to potentiality, is the motion, change or activity that represents an exercise or fulfillment of a possibility, when a possibility becomes real in the fullest sense.” The idea is also informed by Stephanie Hartung’s work on Brand Integration. 

An effective sustainability brand builds organisational resilience in the face of ESG risks; it helps achieve or maintain internal cohesion; and it inspires innovation that is grounded in real relationships. The Brand Actuation Process unfolds as the organisation responds to whatever sustainability challenges are prominent at a given time. The figure below presents the concept as a response to three challenges presently focusing organisational efforts: disclosure, decision-making and innovation. This depiction would change over time, as different sustainability challenges move in and out of organisational focus.



In practice, the process unfolds through conversations with teams of people across the business. These are oriented to a grounded understanding of the organisation’s particular intersect with society and nature and an appreciation for the humanity of those doing the work. The conversations explore which sustainability aspects matter to their work and in which ways; what the teams are already doing in relation to those aspects; and what nudges might better orient and align their actions. Conversations may be supported by deeper processes such as Constellation Work or methods such as Triopticon or Archetype Extraction from The Cynefin Company. 

The focus of brand actuation is slow, messy and micro, and aimed at cultivating potential as much as actual. The way forward does not require a rush into BHAGs and large-scale investment; it is about finding the space to feel or sense our way forward in every moment. We engage the territory and seek out patterns. When we follow that, we act intelligently and often collectively. At the same time, the urgency of our predicament will not accept plausible deniability as an excuse for inaction or inadequate action. The need for movement is clear and steps must be taken. When things align, movement can be fast and ripple effects considerable. 

As the brand evolves and actuates, the efforts of people within the organisation are supported and movement can become fluid and even graceful. Yet it rarely starts off that way and attention is needed to what employees fear they will lose along the way. Stephanie Hartung notes that “people do not resist change; they resist when they think they will lose something”. This reflects a fundamental polarity in which life seeks both stability (to stay as we are because it worked) and instability or change (because otherwise we do not grow).

The success of brand actuation may be measured through virtually any significant indicator in perhaps unexpected ways that reflect a growing harmony and longer term resilience. Brand is not a short term fancy; sustainable brands do not support extractive profiteering and may not feed quarterly earnings. The use of narrative metrics – people’s stories – are likely to provide the best feedback and may be tracked and analysed easily in real time through SenseMaker® software. 


Banner picture cropped from a photo by David Marcu on Unsplash

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