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Just say 'no' to stock messages: Here are 10 principles for sustainability that sells

We’ve always suspected that how information about sustainability is visualized doesn’t actually engage most audiences, reducing the effectiveness of communications. While carrying out our new research, "How to design sustainability that sells," we realized that the problem was worse than expected.

We set out to build a broad evidence-based perspective of what does and doesn’t work when it comes to visualizing sustainability strategies and initiatives in messaging and communications. We started with a review all of the available academic literature and interviews with experts including a psychologist, a semiotician and an economist. That research revealed fundamental challenges in communicating sustainability and that, while communications seem to be getting better, there is a long way to go.

At a fundamental level, the way sustainability concepts are generally presented isn’t relevant to consumers. Messaging usually relies on a set of clichés and a visual language that most people simply don’t relate to.

We call this aesthetic "stock sustainability," and it’s incredibly common. Sometimes the message is homespun and earthy, sometimes it is dry and corporate. Whatever guise it takes, it relies on a lot of the same bad ideas.

We reviewed the sustainability communications of Forbes magazine’s 100 most valuable brands and found them riddled with terrible clichés — hands holding up a seedling, green planets, endless wind turbines and lightbulbs alongside text with nothing to do with energy. 

So many of these communications looked very similar to each other as well, and nothing like the distinctive brand identities that these same companies spend so much time building and guarding. 

Communicating about sustainability programs is hard. That makes it easy to fall back on "stock sustainability" messaging, which is a problem for brands. Sustainability has to look good if we want people to buy it. Furthermore, there are some significant challenges to overcome if we want mainstream audiences to really engage with it.

To start with, sustainability is an incredibly complex idea, and an abstract one, making it harder for people to engage with and harder to drive change around it. It has also become wrapped up with a lot of things most people don’t think are relevant to them. For many, sustainability is about politics, science or corporate governance. And for a lot of people, just one of those topics is enough for them to switch off. Combine them, and you have something that is powerfully boring to many people.

What’s more, a lot of sustainability issues are psychologically distant. That’s the mental gap between a person and another person, or a place or an issue. The more distant that something is from our own frame of reference, the less likely we are to engage with it or take action on it.

Talking about a sustainability initiative using stock messaging and imagery doesn’t help solve any of these issues. But here are 10 principles that could help your organization reframe its communications:
  1. Keep it simple. People aren’t as likely to identify with the broad "sustainability" concept as they are to respond to specific issues that are relevant to them, so find those and focus on them. And don’t try to cover too much ground at any one time.
  2. Bring it closer to home. You need to reduce the overwhelming scale of sustainability issues and relate them to things people care about in their everyday lives.
  3. Be honest. You have to walk the walk. More than that, though, the second people think you are trying to mislead them, any benefits of talking about your sustainability efforts are gone.
  4. It doesn’t have to look eco-friendly. Stock sustainability doesn’t work for most people, so ditch the aesthetic.
  5. With that said, green is sometimes good. The color green has such strong associations with the topic of sustainability, so it isn’t completely irrelevant. Just be sensible about it. Use digital-first greens and interesting color combinations to escape the stock sustainability aesthetic.
  6. No photography is better than bad photography. Sustainability communications are often riddled with obscure stock photography. A good picture can tell a thousand words; a bad one turns people off. If you don’t have good photographs, find an approach that doesn’t rely on them.
  7. Say no to Papyrus or any of the other questionable fonts associated with sustainability.
  8. Beware of icons. Used correctly, they can be a powerful shorthand to help people navigate complex content. But more is not better; icons either need to be self-explanatory or used consistently enough and in sufficiently small number that people can recall and understand them. Otherwise, they just add to the complexity and confusion.
  9. If it doesn’t fit your brand, don’t use it. It’s pretty obvious really, but so many companies throw out the brand book when it comes to talking about a sustainability program or target or campaign, reducing the association of their communications with their brand and potentially diminishing their brand’s distinctiveness. If you have to communicate about sustainability initiatives often, consider adding a few pages on it to your brand book.
  10. Do your own thing. Stock sustainability doesn’t work. Sustainability issues can look however you want them to look. Start with understanding your core audience, and build something that really engages them.

We have put these principles into practice and came up with radically different ways of communicating sustainability issues. You can find examples, along with further insight in our full report.

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