Advertising Interviews

Harsh Purohit

Executive Director | 05 Feb 2010

The paradigms have changed, more is no longer merrier. Less has become more. There’s a new set of rules; earlier, it was ‘leave your mark on it’, now the winner is ‘the one that leaves no mark’. It’s the death of the metrosexual and the birth of the ecosexual. Progressive organisations have been quick to decipher the signals and have proactively started reporting their environmental and social performance along with their economic performance. This triple bottom-line reporting is termed as sustainability reporting and this new emerging communication is called sustainability communication.

Harsh Purohit is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Cognito Advertising, a full service design agency and sustainability advisory. Cognito specialises in seeding and cascading the practice of sustainability in organisations through successful deployment of multi-disciplinary design and communication tools.

Purohit is a sustainability strategist and performs at the intersection of sustainability, design, technology, and profits. Partnering with progressive clients like ABN AMRO Bank, Mahindra, Reliance Industries, Grasim, L&T and MSPL, he has helped push the envelope in sustainability reporting. The ABN AMRO Bank India Sustainability report developed by Cognito swept the GRI Reader’s Choice Awards and was adjudged the ‘Best Report, Financial Markets’.

With his presentations to corporate boards, Purohit has played a vital role in helping organisations internalise sustainability and prepare themselves for the future. He has developed the 4Ps of sustainability, which help an organisation understand the business case for sustainability and chalk out measurable goals.

Purohit is actively involved in consultations on development of global reporting frameworks, gender equality and sustainable innovation. He is also a regular speaker at various forums across India and Europe.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Tuhina Anand, Purohit speaks at length about the concept of sustainability communication and why it has become important in today’s business scenario.

Q. There is an emergence of a new kind of communication, could you elaborate and also explain the need of this kind of communication?

The relationship of business with environment and society is undergoing a fundamental shift. World over, businesses are feeling the heat from consumers, investors, policy makers, financial institutions, non-governmental organisations, media and activists. The demand for transparency and accountability is increasing every day. Stakeholders want to know how a business is impacting the environment and whether it is an asset or a liability for the society it operates in. Non-fulfilment of these expectations is manifesting in projects being stalled, brands losing market share, protesting stakeholders and framing of more stringent policies.

Thus, it is no surprise that also investment analysts are increasingly paying more attention to a company’s environmental and social performance, while determining its market capitalisation, or assessing the cost at which to provide it capital. Legacy communication channels are too deeply focused on ‘yell & sell’. They just don’t have the right mindset to tackle this challenge. Due to years of abuse, stakeholders perceive them to be high on exaggeration and low on credibility.

The paradigms have changed, more is no longer merrier. Less has become more. There’s a new set of rules; earlier, it was ‘leave your mark on it’, now the winner is ‘the one that leaves no mark’. It’s the death of the metrosexual and the birth of the ecosexual. Progressive organisations have been quick to decipher the signals and have proactively started reporting their environmental and social performance along with their economic performance. This triple bottom-line reporting is termed as sustainability reporting and this new emerging communication is called sustainability communication.

Sustainability communication is communication that aims to build environmental and social brand equity. Before engaging with external stakeholders, it is paramount that sustainability principles are put into practice within the organisation, especially at all stakeholder touchpoints. More like the ancient wisdom of having the product on the shelf before shouting from the roof.

Thus, the first phase of a successful sustainability communication campaign is generally internal stakeholder engagement.

Q. How amenable are clients and agencies to the issue of sustainability which you have been championing?

The action is fast and furious, where enlightened or impacted clients are concerned. These clients realise that they have the early-mover advantage. They are keen to translate sustainability into a competitive edge. Recently, L&T requested me to conduct over 15 sustainability workshops to sensitise their top and middle management with an aim to integrate sustainable practices in their day to day activities.

Today, over 28 organisations in India, including large ones like Mahindra, Grasim, Reliance, L&T, ABN AMRO Bank, and MSPL, are publishing detailed sustainability reports. In the past year, there has been an accelerated increase in interest from corporate India. This interest is fueled by two key parameters – first, the requests from FIIs for sustainability or triple bottom-line reports, and second, environmental and social pre-qualification conditions from their foreign clients.

The policies emerging from the Government of India’s National Action Plan Against Climate Change is also nudging businesses to embrace sustainability. We have identified the drivers of sustainability as the 4Ps – Profits, Protests, Policies and Preservation. This framework helps businesses understand the huge opportunities that sustainability offers and the business risks they could face if they don’t act now.

Q. Where do you see the Indian advertising going ahead?

Consumer buying behaviour is changing. According to a recent research conducted by Cohn & Wolfe, Esty Environmental Partners, Landor Associates and Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, 78 per cent of Indians say they will spend more on green products in 2010.

Advertising has no choice but to cater to this rising demand. Marketing plans of many an organisation already feature customer segments like LOHAS and super niche segments like Cultural Creatives, BoBos, NoNos, etc. What advertising professionals need to keep in mind is that these customers take their sustainability very seriously and if they find that a brand is indulging in ‘greenwash’, the backlash is severe and the damage to brand equity almost irreparable.

Q. Please elaborate on sustainability being a big issue in design and mention ways to tackle the issue.

Sustainability is a big design issue. The cause is design, and the solution too is design. Many of the sustainability challenges staring us in the face are due to the inability of design professionals to view long term impacts of their products, for example, car designers for a long time never comprehended the cumulative damage to the environment that their designs could cause. Urban planners have still not been able to create a design that can scale at the pace required without compromising on the quality of life.

What one needs to understand is that the design brief has changed. Environment and social specifications didn’t figure too prominently in the brief document earlier, now they do. Unfortunately, most senior designers were never trained for sustainability. In fact, the focus then was on planned obsolescence and enhanced consumption. It’s difficult for most to make this 180 degree shift. It’s like fixing a plane in mid-flight.

Q. Name few things on the agenda for Cognito in 2010.

Cognito’s goal is well encompassed in what my friend Steve McCoy says, ‘Change the way you change the world’. Generally, businesses are painted as villains and most look at NGOs and Government to bring about the change. At Cognito, we think there is no other section of society that is better equipped to lead the sustainability revolution than business. Businesses have the resources, the management bandwidth, the motivation and the requisite expertise and experience to turn principles into practice. All that is needed is to create awareness that sustainability is business self-interest.

As India’s leading sustainability communications advisory, we at Cognito realise that it is our responsibility to grow the market and accelerate sustainability adoption.

Towards this objective, we aim to conduct numerous sustainability awareness workshops across the country. We recently hosted two such workshops in collaboration with the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Mumbai and Bangalore.

Future workshops include one on ‘Sustainability and The Role of Media’. Your readers can watch this space for more details.

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