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When does talking about sustainability become too risky?

Recent sustainability campaigns by McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Clorox Green Works provide four important lessons.

In recent weeks, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Clorox's Green Works have been the targets of sometimes scathing criticism for launching sustainability-related campaigns.

These campaigns have been described by some as "breathtakingly dumb," "ridiculous" and "not so sustainable."

While each campaign is different, all three strive to engage consumers around some of sustainability's hottest issues: transparency, ingredients and behavior change. The more I dig into the critics' digs, the more it becomes apparent that businesses can't always please everyone. Taking a risk in the right direction, however, is better than not taking a risk at all.

McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Green Works each took a risk in their own way in part to push forward public discourse. McDonald's announced that its Filet-O-Fish sandwich wrappers will begin carrying an ecolabel from the Marine Stewardship Council in the U.S. Coca-Cola entered the national discussion on obesity with two commercial spots, and Green Works parodied the "Real Housewives" reality television brand while exploring green lifestyle options.

Yes, these types of campaigns sometimes miss the mark, especially in Green Works' case. Instead of focusing on the efficacy of one campaign, maybe the larger question should center on what else these companies are doing to engage consumers in these important conversations.

What truly matters is what companies do next. Sticking a label on a food wrapper, replaying television commercials and releasing a series of webisodes won't be enough to drive the real change that's needed on these issues.

Here are four ways companies can make sure their campaigns pay off in the long run and avoid letting their risks turn into flops:

1. Show your true colors.

Nobody's perfect, and that's even truer when it comes to multinational corporations.

In McDonald's attempt to highlight its commitment to sustainable seafood, it sidestepped the public's ongoing concern about its beef sourcing, which is much more central to the food chain's business.

The lesson: The more transparent companies are about their challenges, the more consumers will reward their strides. When companies gloss over controversial topics, their good efforts will be met with skepticism.    

2. Invite consumers into a conversation.

Businesses don't always have all the right answers, but if they're wise they'll invite consumers into the conversation and listen to what they have to say.

Coca-Cola is doing this by taking a poll on its Journey website as to whether the company's anti-obesity ads "hit" or "miss" the mark. Of course, more can be done to engage the public in this conversation, but it's a start.

3. Engage consumers to learn more.

The Clorox Green Works website says things like: "You don't have to be a trust fund baby to be green" and "You don't have to know how to pronounce quinoa [to be green]." These statements are slightly funny, but don't really provide consumers with practical information to make more sustainable everyday choices, other than using their cleaning products.

Companies that want to drive positive consumer behavior need to offer consumers ways to learn about greener choices  and not mock them  while moving beyond their own products.

4. Communicate your journey.

Each campaign mentioned is part of a larger corporate sustainability strategy, but those messages have gotten lost in each campaign.

McDonald's recent announcement is actually part of a greater story. The company has been MSC certified in the U.S. since 2005 and has been serving MSC-certified fish in Europe since 2011. The lesson: Firms need to communicate their larger sustainability story to add credibility to one-time campaigns.  

The more companies communicate their stories and engage everyone in productive dialogue   early on and often  the more their efforts will be viewed as authentic. Perhaps then more critics will be willing to acknowledge (and maybe tolerate) such risky moves instead of pointing fingers.

What's your take on how companies can engage consumers? Add your comments below or send them to me on Twitter @NayelliGonzalez.        

Bullhorn image by floeschie via Compfight cc.

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