Speaking Sustainably

How to shape your sustainability story

I’ve been working in sustainability marketing — helping companies communicate about what they’re doing on sustainability in order to drive brand preference and sales — for 15 years. I used to spend a lot of time trying to convince executives of the power of sustainability as a lever: to attract and retain employees, to drive consumer preference, to appeal to investors. Happily, I don’t spend as much time doing that anymore. Most executives seem to get it that sustainability is a "thing" now.

Instead, I spend a lot of time convincing them that they need to do things to be sustainable before we can talk about it.

The No. 1 request we get from prospective clients is "Help us tell our sustainability story," which assumes that there actually already is a sustainability story to be told.

This request typically comes from people in corporate marketing or communications, which is good because they have the budgets for storytelling (the folks on the sustainability team typically don’t), and it’s great that they’re engaged on the topic (for years they weren’t).

What’s not good is they often don’t know anything about greenwashing and all the perils/implications for their brands if they’re accused of it.

Having a recycling program is not the same thing as having a sustainability story. And having been a responsible business for years is not the same thing as having an actual program to reduce impacts and create a sustainable future.

So, we spend a lot of time helping companies see that they need to follow a basic formula in order to tell their sustainability stories successfully. Here are the three major components:

Commit

This starts with measuring a company’s actual environmental impact, including environmental and social impacts in its supply chains. If you’ve done this, you know it’s hard. But your team simply can’t go out in the world and say your company is a leader on sustainability or position your organization as "Good" if you don’t actually know what you’re doing today that’s not good.

You also need to understand what your key audiences expect from you. This is more than a materiality study, although it’s good to do that exercise. This is about understanding deeper visceral reactions to your company’s brand and the expectations of customers, investors and prospective employees.

It’s imperative that your company’s commitments solve actual environmental problems and that its goals align with and even exceed the market’s expectations of your company and brands.

All of this analysis should end with actual impact reduction goals and an overarching environmental and/or social commitment your company can be known for. In other words, do all the right things to reduce greenhouse gas impacts.

That could mean committing to science-based targets and/or the 1.5 Degree Pledge, or it could mean planting your flag on a moonshot goal such as ending hunger; shifting an entire category from single-use to re-use; ending the use of certain pesticides or Red List chemicals in your company’s products; shifting an entire category away from fossil fuels — you get the idea. As you pick this moonshot goal, keep in mind that it needs to align with your brand and what your company is already known for, because, ultimately, your storytelling needs to align.

Do

I’ve spent a lot of years advocating for the standard sustainability approach of "Get out there with your commitments! By going public it will hold you accountable, and by letting the world know what you’re going for you’ll attract partners you never could have found otherwise."

I still believe that wholeheartedly. But I’ve seen a lot of companies sort of stop there. They announce goals and then they don’t do a lot to actually change their processes/systems/suppliers to make the goals happen.

So, yes, communicate about a moonshot goal, but wait to really hang your hat on it until your company has an actual roadmap in place for getting there and until it has begun taking action.

Say

Once you have a moonshot goal that your company can be known for and you’ve begun to tackle it, communicate about it over and over. This starts with what we call a "rallying cry" and a communications platform.

A rallying cry is a short, pithy statement, a little like a tag line, that captures what your company is doing and why. The rallying cry should align with your brand story and make sense to your core audiences. It also should be inspiring and easy to remember.

Undergirding the rallying cry should be clear reasons to believe it. You might think of these as pillars: The rallying cry is the top of a message house and the reasons to believe are the pillars that support it. Together, they form your communications platform.

Spend time on this, make it a collaborative process and really get it right. If you do that, then everyone in your organization — from brand management to product marketing and sustainability to sales — will be able to use it.

It also can be helpful to create a messaging grid showing how the communications platform gets customized and augmented for specific audiences.

If yours is a corporate sustainability story, don’t create a separate communications stream or "sustainability campaign" for it. Instead, create pieces of content that you can "float" into your other communications streams.

In other words, you likely already have an employee communications plan, an investor communications plan, a customer communications plan, etc. Create content about your sustainability story that you can integrate into those existing streams.

By content we mean videos, blog posts and articles, infographics, white papers, photos or illustrations with captions. Your company’s sustainability report is a major piece of content that can get promoted to all audiences with content actually pulled from the report itself.

If you have a new product that embodies your sustainability commitment or if your brand promise now is your sustainability story, then, of course, create a separate campaign.

Measure awareness and engagement along the way. This can be done via ongoing polling, tracking click-throughs and eyeballs. But it also can be done by creating ways for stakeholders to engage with your moonshot goal via their purchases. Work to demonstrate that consumers are buying Product X from you because they know it supports your moonshot goal. 

Bottom line: Sustainability should never be charity; it should be a business lever. Your job is to be able to demonstrate how, by investing in sustainability, your company is building brand preference, attracting new employees, investors and customers, and driving sales. If you can demonstrate some or all of that, then your company will continue to invest and you’ll actually achieve your goal.

I’ll be diving much more deeply into this approach at a GreenBiz 20 session, "How to Shape Your Sustainability Story." I’ll be joined by three Shelton Group clients: Sara Corbett, senior manager of brand strategy at Rheem Manufacturing; Cathy Combs, director of sustainability with Eastman; and Rick Velleu, director of content and marketing for the Environmental Defense Fund. Each will share stories of bringing sustainability communications platform to life.

If you’re in the audience, you’ll actually get the opportunity to work with the process and internalize it so you can take it back to your shop and work with it successfully. I hope to see you there.

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