Digitalisation is still in full swing as the first major transformation, but it is already being overshadowed by a second one: sustainability. It is not only politicians who are demanding this with more and more initiatives. Consumers also want companies to act in a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable manner. High time for companies to meet the expectations, and to rethink not only the value chains, but also brand management. Only in this way will they manage to play a relevant role in society.

A guest article by:
Lukas Cottrell, Managing Partner, Peter Schmidt Group and
Michael Bütow, Michael Bütow, Head of Brandmanagement, Deutsche Bahn AG, Deutsche Bahn AG

What brands have to achieve to be perceived as sustainable

Today, no one can avoid the topic of sustainability. On the contrary: we have long been living in the age of Dos and Don’ts and must prepare ourselves for an increase in government regulations: The sugar tax, for example, has already been introduced in the UK, the abolition of short-haul flights will soon take place in France, Norway’s plan to ban combustion engines is to be implemented as early as 2025. This is not surprising either: politicians have a duty to people to create sustainable solutions and, if necessary, to force companies to make life more social as well as more environmentally friendly and to make the economy work as a cycle. When looking for evidence of whether brands are really acting sustainably, people are very precise. Inconsistencies between what is said and what is done immediately trigger a storm of indignation. So these changes in expectations of companies mean not only rethinking value chains, but equally rethinking brand management and communication.

Enable your brand to have a stance

Today, it is more important than ever for brands to have a clear stance. But does everything that moves people fit the brand? Companies can only find out if they look at which values they support and which they condemn.

Deutsche Bahn therefore not only anchors its values on social, economic and environmental issues in its business model, they are also clearly defined in its brand personality. However, the most important thing is not only the clear definition. In order to really live the values, it is also important to involve the employees: Attitude begins with internal communication, which motivates employees to make people’s lives easier with sustainable measures and to help shape society.

Deutsche Bahn is taking a values-driven approach to the green transformation

This does not only convince young applicants. Employees who have been with the company for 10, 20, 30 years also stand behind the values, are proud to be a part of them, and then also make them visible to the outside world with every measure. This inner conviction of the brand and the people who work with it make it possible for companies to participate in the most diverse discourses, but always remain authentic. Even in the case of unplanned events, when it comes to reacting in real time, but appropriately and in a way that is typical of the brand.

Take diversity and inclusion issues into account

Peter Schmidt Group's "Better Brands 2021" study
In the Peter Schmidt Group’s “Better Brands 2021” study, statements on social aspects of sustainability receive the highest approval rating. © Peter Schmidt Group

Whether companies live diversity and inclusion in everyday life is especially important for people. Question the appearance of your brand regarding traditional roles and stereotypes and take gender and racism issues as well as accessibility into account in the design.

The logo can also be a mouthpiece. In the past, people would have said that it was the most valuable element of a brand and therefore untouchable, but today we consider this to be outdated. Because precisely because it is the strongest element, it has the greatest power to give social groups a voice. But only if the change is not a campaign, but reflects the attitude of the company.

You will remember the action of many companies on the LGBTIQ+ movement and how they coloured their logo in rainbow colours. Some did it because others were leading the way. Deutsche Bahn had an internal discourse on this in advance. The result: Deutsche Bahn coloured its logo, not to be part of a campaign trend. But because the employees live an open society without discrimination in the company.


“Even though the rainbow logo was used in an inflationary way, we did it anyway. Because everyone stands behind it. We are sending a clear message – internally and externally.”

— Michael Bütow


Diversity and inclusion does not stop with the logo, of course. The extent to which Deutsche Bahn is committed to diversity in society is equally evident in such subtle brand elements as a digital avatar that addresses all people and not just certain genders.

Prove the brand values through transparent communication

Deutsche Bahn's chatbot DB Smile communicates in a gender-neutrally
Deutsche Bahn’s chatbot DB Smile communicates in a gender-neutral way. © Deutsche Bahn AG

Communicative statements are one thing. Real action is the other. People take notice when companies propagate sustainable action. They sit down and really check at all touchpoints whether this is true. The more opaque the communication, the louder the accusations of green-washing.

And rightly so. Transformation does not happen overnight. And brands that have a strong stance will have to face accusations one way or another. It’s about allowing these critical messages and responding to them appropriately. Instead of ignoring them, brands need to address people’s questions.

The annual Fair Report from Tony’s Chocolonely shows how open and honest communication can be. Whether defeats or wins, Tony’s Chocolonely allows a pretty close look behind the scenes. And it’s easy for everyone to understand.

Tony’s Chokolonely discloses the company’s strategy and profits to everyone.


“Companies today have to prove that they act sustainably. This can only be done with full transparency.”

— Lukas Cottrell


Understand brand as a platform for social groups

Brands have long been considered part of society. So they are also expected to actively support social groups. As Nike did, for example: the company sided with ex-NFL player Colin Kaepernick in its campaign, sharing his protest against the oppression of people of colour in the USA. The effect, as I’m sure you could follow, was not long in coming. People posted burning Nike shoes on social media, the share price dropped and the company was accused of unpatriotic behaviour, as was Kaepernick.

And yet Nike is a winner. Although the company lost a part of its customers, for the other part it very well proved how important its own values are to the company – and the people who represent them as well. This not only increased the brand’s credibility, but also ended up increasing sales by about 10 per cent.

“First the @NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then @Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive?”

Sean Clancy on Twitter

Despite negative reactions to the campaign with Colin Kaepernick, Nike remains true to its stance.

Transform brand work into values work

These and other examples show how sustainable transformation is changing brand work. To remain relevant to consumers, brands need to retell themselves in a whole new way: by enabling an attitude, fully disclosing their value chain, making their solutions concrete and communicating the sustainability of their offering in a comprehensible way. These are the factors by which people distinguish good brands from better ones.

In the end, however, the decisive factor will not only be acting according to values. Brands will also have to show what their attitude is worth to them. How much are they willing to risk for their attitude? How far would the brand go to stand up for its values? It turns out that the more consistent companies are, the more valuable and relevant they become to people.

The authors

Michael Bütow und Lukas Cottrell
Michael Bütow (Deutsche Bahn, left), Lukas Cottrell (Peter Schmidt Group). © Deutsche Bahn, Peter Schmidt Group

Lukas Cottrell
Managing Partner, Peter Schmidt Group

Lukas Cottrell holds a degree in economics and has extensive experience in the development of future-oriented strategies that transform brands and define markets. At the Peter Schmidt Group, he is responsible for the budgets of Deutsche Bahn, Mercedes-Benz, Nivea, BASF, KfW and DZ BANK, among others, and ensures strategically sound brand development.

Michael Bütow
Head of Brandmanagement, CD/CI, Manager Marketingboard, Deutsche Bahn AG

Michael Bütow has 20 years of marketing experience in various industries, including Siemens and o2. He is responsible for Deutsche Bahn’s brand identity throughout the Group. His mission: to modernise the brand and bring it closer to the people again.


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