Apple, Earth Day, And The New Demands Of Leadership

Apr 23 2014, 2:28pm CDT | by

On Monday, Apple launched a new ad outlining its environmental responsibility. In doing so, Tim Cook firmly placed his imprimatur of the future of Apple, going so far as to provide the voiceover for the ad himself just as Steve Jobs had done for an early version of ‘Here’s to the Crazy Ones’.

Tim Cook demonstrated his passion for addressing climate change at Apple’s shareholder meeting in February stating “If you want me to do things only for [return on investment] reasons you should get out of this stock.”  Cook also publicly committed Apple to using 100% renewable energy in all of its facilities as soon as possible. To that end, Apple enlisted the services of former head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, in 2013 to oversee its sustainability efforts and, after an initial reversal, committed the company to using green materials in its computers under the EPEAT Standard. Now Greenpeace spokesman and ‘Clicking Green’ Report co-author, David Pomerantz, states, “Apple has done the most of any data center operator to make its part of the internet green,” and as of yesterday, Apple revamped the environmental page on its website to celebrate the energy savings of its iMacs and its carbon-free new campus clearly stating, “We believe climate change is real.”

Such bold statements by Apple do invite scrutiny, however, as they do for any brand. Questions remain about what happens behind its very private supply chain ecosystem, the sustainability practices of its Chinese manufacturer, Foxconn, and Apple’s philanthropic record. Meanwhile the ad itself is emblematic of this journey. More corporate in tone and imagery, it is less accessible than many of its popular product ads.

Moving forward, Apple has the opportunity to incorporate three strategies critical to social storytelling:

1. Brands must be the celebrant, not celebrity, of their customer community: Social technology is teaching us to be more human in our relatedness with stakeholders and that should be reflected in brand storytelling, especially when addressing issues as important to everyone’s future as climate change, renewable energy, and sustainability. This involves a simple but important shift from focusing on what Apple is doing itself, to celebrating how that work is making a positive difference in the lives of others.

2. Customers want to coauthor the brand story: There is no shortage of passion for Apple’s revolutionary products but as the company seeks to position its brand around shared values, there will be a greater expectation from all stakeholders to play a greater role in shaping the brand’s sustainability commitment and story. This is great news for Apple as there is such an enormous reservoir of passion for the brand to tap into once it commits to balancing control with inclusion to achieve the common goal.

3. People rise to the conversation you create around them: Apple’s undeniable expertise, resources, and innovation capacity equip it to be a leader in the sustainability space. That privilege, however, is also a responsibility. As Apple further integrates environmental responsibility throughout its supply chain, product line, and retail marketing, the onus will fall on the company to shape the alternative energy and sustainability conversation beyond its own walls. Only when Apple actively extends the cultural conversation will it be positioned for true industry leadership.

Lisa Jackson writes on the Apple website that, “We have a long way to go but we are proud of our progress.” In the ad itself, Tim Cook repositions their core commitment to “better” as an ideal that hinges on values and actions that benefit people and the planet, rather than a product feature alone. If these are any indication of a new imperative at Apple, it is indeed cause to celebrate. Apple’s success has always been driven by its ability to hold itself to a higher standard, and if this is applied equally to sustainability, we can expect true leadership, innovation and impact in the years to come.

Learn how to define, frame, and share a brand story that empowers your company to lead business, drive sales, and shape culture. Join us at the 2014 We First Brand Leadership Summit, Oct 7-8 in Beverly Hills, CA.
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