3 keys to communicate sustainability without the ego

3 keys to communicate sustainability without the ego

Bubble dialogue image by Cienpies Design via Shutterstock.

Sustainability communications has got harder -- and much more interesting.

Gone are the days of preening and crowing about your own performance. All audiences today, from consumers to specialists, expect to receive a "return on attention." If you want to capture their attention, you have to offer some value in return.

Luckily, sustainability is packed with interest, content and value, if you look hard enough. During the upcoming BSR Conference in San Francisco in November, I'll be searching for that "value content" -- and quietly slipping out of sessions where brands just list their achievements.

This "value" can come in all shapes and sizes. Make me laugh, make me smarter, blow my mind. Nine out of 10 organizations now provide "value content" to market themselves, according to the Content Marketing Institute. The tactic works. Offer "useful, interesting or helpful content," rather than traditional marketing, and audiences listen, with more than three-quarters of consumers saying they understood that these companies are selling something, but felt it was OK because the information provided was valuable.

In short, sustainability communications is no longer about you. It's now all about them. Anything else is just "ego-PR," a phenomenon that rightfully receives derision.  

If this ultimatum makes you nervous, rest easy. I have some good news: Sustainability is a tremendously powerful key to unlocking value for your audiences. What easier way to add something meaningful to your consumers' lives than by aligning with your efforts to make the world a better place?

This can play out several ways, but perhaps the most obvious is sustainable lifestyles, social marketing and behaviour change. We all want to be better people -- healthier, happier, greener and more successful. So one of the best ways for a brand to win the hearts and minds of its audience is by helping them become their best possible selves.

3 principles for adding value to customers' lives through sustainability

1. Examine what you're already doing

What are you doing to make your business more sustainable? Reducing your waste? Innovating new products or services? Investing in your local community?

That's great, but what about your audience? Locate the sweet spot between these efforts and your customers' lives, and find the piece of communications that would either create value or point to where it already exists.

If you tell me the sustainability story behind a product or service, and show me where my behavior fits in, even if it's just choosing it over a less sustainable alternative, three things will happen:

1. I'll believe that it's relevant and important
2. I'll tell my friends about the behavior and how great it makes me feel
3. I'll want to repeat the experience

2. Get creative

It's a noisy world, even in the relatively new field of sustainability communications. To cut through the racket, you need a clear message that makes people believe you're doing something, or helping them to do something, that will make their lives better.

Futerra created a toolkit to help with this challenge. Thirteen insights power its Change-Maker Cards to help companies get creative about how sustainability and their product, business or service can add value to people's lives.

One of the insights in the Change-Maker Cards is "Reward," where by giving something valuable to consumers to say thanks for a positive behaviour, you'll reinforce it and make them feel great. In Mexico, for example, Nike invited their customers to "trade sweat for stuff." By creatively encouraging people to get active, Nike met its health commitment, entertained its audience and earned bucket-loads of brand loyalty.

3. Make your customer the hero

Your company is not the hero in its sustainability story -- your audience is.

The company can play many roles, from mentor to disruptor, but ultimately businesses must make their customers feel like heroes for the choices they make and the behaviors they undertake.

Levi Strauss & Co. has nailed this approach. Most of the impact from a pair of jeans comes through consumer use. When Levi's discovered this, they initiated a global dialogue with their customers about how clothing care affects the environment. Several "content communications" tactics spilled out, including a new care tag. If your content is valuable enough, like the Levi's care tag has been, it has a chance of becoming a new industry standard.

These three simple principles -- understanding your brand, getting creative and making your customer the hero -- will help your brand be valuable. And valuable brands are sustainable.

Bubble dialogue image by Cienpies Design via Shutterstock.