Today I saw a Sherwin Williams truck driving along, proudly bearing its logo, which is a can of red paint being poured over a blue and white globe. The paint is splashing into the Arctic Ocean at the top, making Earth look like a present with a bow on top; the paint is also dripping off the bottom into the ether. The tag line is “Cover the Earth.”
If ever there was a need to refresh a brand, this would be it. In this imagery our planet is being not just coated, but smothered, by toxic paint. It suggests Sherwin Williams’ goal is to choke out all forms of life by drowning us in red goo. It makes me believe that Sherwin Williams is so wedded to an old-fashioned look and feel that it is missing a tangible opportunity to use its brand to communicate its more modern values.
That said, in digging into Sherwin-Williams’ actual sustainability strategy, I was not particularly comforted by CEO and Chairman Chris Connor’s opening statement in the corporate sustainability video. “A paint company is all about sustainability. We are sustaining people’s homes and businesses and all the infrastructure around our country needs coating to sustain it. So our very core of our culture is a company that believes in sustaining things.”
While that comment kind of misses the mark, in truth, Sherwin Williams is doing the basics as a good citizen. It offers a variety of “eco-formula” paints, the employees volunteer, it puts out a sustainability report that tracks progress against 2015 goals. The company recognizes sustainability as an efficiency and way to reduce costs, while also inspiring pride for employees and “leaving the world a better place for our kids and grand kids.” It’s pretty rudimentary for such a well-established brand, and metrics are not a big part of the discussion, but my guess is that Sherwin Williams is even more committed to sustainability than it is letting on.
Unfortunately Sherwin Williams is the victim of an increasingly frequent sustainability communication sickness: heritage brand syndrome. Its symptoms include being founded in the late 1800’s, building equity around an old-fashioned, one-way version of trust, and the use of the founder’s name in the corporate title. Generally speaking these companies do have philanthropy, sustainability and true innovation build into their DNA, but feel it’s out of character to “boast” about their work. The result is a slow erosion of brand equity among consumers who make purchase decisions based on shared values. It also perpetuates the idea that change is dangerous, which is, in fact, the opposite of true. We desperately need change, and these large, global, trusted brands are critical to driving it. Heritage brand syndrome stunts the growth of corporate returns, of innovations that will benefit the planet, and of true consumer behavior change.
What if Sherwin Williams’ corporate call to action was not to “Cover the Earth,” but instead it moved its CSR platform – Caring in Full Color – into the center of the business? Instead of pouring paint all over the planet, show us how the products protect our infrastructure and preserve national treasures. Instead of using humility as a shield, show us how a company of such stature and strength contributes to a better future. Mostly, show us that heritage brand syndrome has a cure.