Customers want to shop with brands that share their environmental, social and economic goals. And the COVID-19 crisis has provided consumer brands with ample opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable practices. And that is winning them customer loyalty and top ranks in our Customer Experience Excellence survey.

It is, perhaps, surprising to some that the COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on sustainability. The virus was not worsened by climate change; it poses no real threat to the environment; nor will it be vanquished through adherence to 'greener' practices.

What the crisis did, however, is force consumers to think much more broadly about what 'sustainable' actually means. Consumers have been grappling with big questions. How sustainable is a hospital that sources medicine from just one country? How sustainable is a company whose supply chain is solely focused on efficiency and financed by debt? How sustainable are brands that rely almost entirely on flex-workers and temporary labour?

COVID-19 also heightened customer expectations with regards to sustainability. Many consumers now see sustainability as a leading factor contributing to their purchase decision and brand loyalty. And there is growing consensus that the COVID-19 experience has accelerated demand for brands to play a greater role in creating value for customers and the broader society.

Strategic sustainability

The leading brands are seizing the opportunity. They are redesigning their business models and customer experiences around principles of sustainability. They are demonstrating what it means to stand up for society. And they are acting on the urgent need for change in the new normal.

To be clear, the leading brands are not taking these steps to capture headlines. Rather, they recognise that sustainability leads to more resilient business models and more aligned customer experiences. And that, in turn, makes them more valuable brands.

Infographic sustainability

ASN Bank demonstrates how placing sustainability at the core of the brand purpose can deliver long-term value. For more than 60 years, the bank has focused on promoting sustainable growth, building customer trust and investing in financially sustainable sectors.

Recently, the bank announced a scheme to provide owners of sustainable homes with greater debt-to- equity ratios on their mortgages (versus owners of non-sustainable homes). This not only encourages sustainable living, it helps customers become more self-sustainable and contributes to a better environment. The bank's focus on sustainability is one of the reasons the brand has been voted 1st for Customer Experience Excellence in the Netherlands this year.

ASN's sister bank – SNS – offers another example of this approach at work. SNS, ranked 31st this year, proactively reaches out to its mortgage customers on a regular basis to see if their mortgage rates and interest can be reduced. And that encourages greater financial sustainability for its customers.

Dutch e-commerce leader Coolblue also has a strong track record of encouraging responsible and sustainable practices within their workforce, customer base and communities. Known for its environmental initiatives such as delivery bikes, solar-powered facilities, packaging-reduction innovations and 'close the loop' take-back schemes, Coolblue had built a strong brand reputation for customer-centricity over the past 20 years. So when the pandemic hit and online prices started to fluctuate, Coolblue's customers gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Ranked 5th in this year's Customer Experience Excellence research, Coolblue demonstrates that a strong, positive brand image can provide resilience when challenges arise.

Action accelerated

Sustainable organisations also tend to be the ones that demonstrate agility in a crisis – finding new business opportunities and new ways to connect with their customers during challenging times. And this crisis has been no different. As the lockdowns took hold, most organisations realised they needed to quickly adapt if they wanted to retain customer loyalty.

For some, this meant innovating to make customers' lives easier or safer. Albert Heijn, for example, quickly accelerated the digitisation of their famous 'koopzegels', knowing that customers would want to reduce their physical contact in-store without losing their access to this valuable loyalty program. Schiphol Airport rapidly introduced AI-enabled cleaning robots, providing travellers with a cleaner environment while reducing unnecessary human interaction.

Others went significantly further, redesigning their business models and operations to deliver on the immediate needs of customers and society. Heineken, for example, is one company that re-tooled their operations and facilities to start producing hand sanitizer for hospital and public use.

Many others are now using spare capacity to produce Personal Protective Equipment like facemasks and shields.

Even before the pandemic, the leading brands were taking steps to improve the sustainability of their supply chains. Starbucks' 'bean to cup' initiative uses state-of-the-art data and analytics to track their coffee beans' journey from the specific coffee farmer through to the store. The idea allows customers to understand the safety of the product and connect with the brand while providing financial empowerment to the farmers.

No turning back

History has shown that – in times of crisis – it is the companies with the most resilient and sustainable business models that ultimately survive. And this crisis is no different. Indeed, the brands that top our list for Customer Experience Excellence this year are generally those that have long invested into crafting a brand purpose that is not centred around a narrow view of shareholder value, but rather a broad view of customer value.

While the precise shape and nature of the 'new normal' that follow this pandemic are still unknown, it seems clear that the focus on sustainability – in all its forms – is not going away. And this is good news for customers, society and the planet. It could also be good news for those brands that respond accordingly.