8 Oct 2018

The nature of brands

In the era of responsibility, engagement and environmentalism, nature has become a serious, involved and political subject.

Camille Yvinec, Co-Managing Director & Strategy Director, Superunion France

At a time when a company's CSR policy is rapidly becoming its main competitive advantage, the planet is no longer a subject to be taken lightly. And about time too.

But although these issues are all very real and of the utmost importance, let’s forget about the anxiety-provoking relationship with Mother Earth which we’re creating, slowly but surely, just for a moment, and go back to the initial relationship which - since the dawn of time - brands have nurtured with everything organic, plant-based and unprocessed. These creative acts are inspired by natural elements and are accomplished without distorting them.

Themed imagination. Biomimetic innovation. Natural excess. Playful deflection: Magnifying origins. Brands have borrowed so many ideas from nature, whether they’re mere pretexts for creation or central themes for reflection.

But what do they give in return?

Every year for the last three decades, Hermès has launched a themed communication campaign and collection which inspires all of the luxury brand’s lines. 2016 saw the advent of “Hermès by nature” and the brand unveiled its “Grandeur Nature” campaign with photos of incredible sensory landscapes featuring tall grass in golden summer light, shot by Japanese photographer Yoshihiko Ueda. It successfully made us feel the breeze on its clothes, sandals, bags, watches, jewellery and tableware.

Cultures which enjoy a more intimate and respectful relationship with the environment are also of significant interest. A year ago, the Peclers (WPP) agency highlighted a growing social trend, that of “ensauvagement” (“wilding”), born of our growing admiration for those who make the choice to truly reconnect with nature. Just like the “Tales of the Wild” campaign for Sauvage by Dior which features authentic men who have seen the expression of their primary instinct become a lifestyle choice.

Nature has always inspired, even beyond its eminently visual dimension. In a more structural way, it is nature’s mechanisms, its intrinsic way of working and its constituent elements which mankind has taken and chosen to adapt, through analogies, to its own way of life.

Architecture is the most obvious example with now iconic structures such as the Eiffel Tower - initially inspired by the robust nature of the femur bone - or more contemporary and ambitious projects such as Lilypad, a floating city for climate change refugees, inspired by the Pantanal water lilies known for their impressive ability to float.

Biomimicry is also attracting interest among brands which see it as a source of inspiration when creating products and experiences. One of the most iconic examples was Nike’s launch of the Flyknit range. In partnership with the experimental architecture studio Sabin Design Lab, the brand with the Swoosh logo was inspired by the human body and its bio-dynamic model to create an organic and cellular design concept for its presentation pavilion. More recently, the start-up ShadeCraft was inspired by sunflowers to create a new-generation parasol which adjusts its position, depending on where the sun is.

Although some are interested in the infinitely small side of nature, others prefer its gigantic excesses. That’s certainly true of Chanel with its increasingly grandiose fashion shows - it regularly puts nature back at the heart of the very places which are the result of the hyperbolic actions of mankind. This tension between lush nature and the urban is often effective, with the creation of a tropical waterfall for its show at Paris Fashion Week in October 2017 being one such example. But this sort of style exercise is risky and can sometimes feel awkward. At its last fashion show in March, the brand known for its double interlocking C logo was criticised by environmental charities for cutting down dozens of trees to create its autumnal forest. The name “Fall 2019 collection” couldn’t have been more apt.

In Thailand, a stylist focuses on the issue of environmental protection and excessive consumption by concentrating on what she knows best: clothes. So she designs outfits made from natural elements and recycled waste, staged in the great outdoors, before sharing them with the world. As an activist, the stylist also uses this project to highlight the issue of transsexuality by having transsexual models pose for her.

With less militant and more light-hearted intentions, the Icelandic artist James Merry enjoys embroidering flowers, plants and animals around the logos of famous brands. Why? To remove iconic brands like Nike, Adidas and Fila from the urban worlds they usually inhabit and to create a more natural, romantic version which often has an exotic feel too.

A classic technique but with an unmistakeable effect: many brands look back to the origins of their product to celebrate their very own nature. Roederer and its “The Cristal difference” campaign are a recent and prime example. Surprising photos (of the phases of the moon and cowpats) which blur the lines between photography and painting and magnify nature’s somewhat mundane - but nevertheless invaluable - contributions to the creation of one of the best champagnes in the world.

How do brands that borrow from nature give back to it?

As anyone who works with brandy and has heard of the angel’s share will know, “nature gives back whatever it takes in another way”. This is the real issue for brands: Examples of their environmental engagement now abound, largely dictated by increased consumer awareness in terms of environmental impact and consumption.

Two brand initiatives in particular have caught our eye, thanks to their relevant concepts and quality execution. Neither of these initiatives involves direct action; instead, they focus on creatively highlighting issues to raise general awareness.

Firstly, there’s Lacoste, with its bold, engaged work. In collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the brand has replaced its iconic crocodile on its legendary polo shirts with 10 species threatened with extinction. The strength of this approach lies in its consistency, since only 1775 ultra-limited edition pieces have been produced - the exact number of these species still alive today. Half of the funds raised go directly to IUCN.

The second striking initiative comes from a northern country: Sweden. SPACE 10, IKEA’s innovation laboratory, wanted to raise public awareness of environmental issues and to highlight a super-ingredient which could cause us to reconsider our agri-food approach in the future. The ingredient? Microalgae, the many properties of which are still largely unknown today. To remedy this, the brand invested in an art festival in Copenhagen where it set up a spherical structure to produce 450 litres of micro-organisms during the three-day event. In partnership with the chef Simon Perez, SPACE 10 gave passers-by the chance to taste culinary creations made with microalgae. An initiative which is all the more commendable given that it had no commercial objective.

As part of this rapprochement between businesses and the environment, brands’ initiatives in this area can no longer be half-hearted. Because although poetry will always be welcome, authenticity will be the price to pay if they want to contribute to re-establishing a sustainable relationship with our planet. In fact, isn’t it all about their own nature?