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How Brands Can Use Sustainability to Connect with Audiences
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How Brands Can Use Sustainability to Connect with Audiences

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7 keys to connecting with your audience: How brands can make sustainability more compelling, relevant and valuable

7 keys to connecting with your audience: How brands can make sustainability more compelling, relevant and valuable

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  • 1. 1AHA! | 7 KEYS TO CONNECTING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE 7 keys to connecting with your audience How brands can make sustainability more compelling, relevant and valuable The solution? Appeal to imagination as much as intellect. Make sustainability desirable. Turn it into something we want to do rather than something we have to do. What a plum opportunity for great brands. All of these strategies are right in their wheelhouse. As communicators working on behalf of brands, we need to present sustainability in ways that make it approachable and appealing. Here are seven ways to do that authentically and effectively. Too often, communications about sustainability fall flat. They either come across as something you’d hear in a lecture hall, or they make people feel guilty or fearful, with predictably poor results. So rather than helping advance sustainability for businesses and with consumers, communications are getting in the way. The drum has been banging for years, and it’s only getting louder: If we don’t do something about [pick your crisis of choice], the world will end up in the ditch. While the message may have some truth, its delivery is counterproductive. People are tired of hearing about intractable problems. It’s overwhelming and seeds cynicism. So do what brands do best: Focus on solutions. Training the spotlight on what’s going right and celebrating progress can help audiences see—and be interested in— the way forward. This isn’t to say we should downplay problems. Rather, it’s often more effective over the long term to engage stakeholders with examples of opportunity and positive impact than berating them into giving a damn. Education is essential, but how brands frame sustainability—whether an inspiring opportunity or a dizzying challenge— influences how it’s received. 1 BE POSITIVE By Christian Hicks
  • 2. 2AHA! | 7 KEYS TO CONNECTING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE From mitigating climate change to improving global health to eliminating poverty, making a clear link between sustainability and a brand’s values and behavior can be challenging. It’s up to us as communicators to make that association accessible to mainstream audiences. That means setting aside research reports and reams of data. It also requires avoiding sanctimony, inflammatory language and jargon. The goal is inclusion. When you’re passionate about something, it’s tempting to show how much you care—and demonstrate your expertise—by delving deep into the details. But if you’re preaching to an empty room, you’re getting nowhere fast. Instead, be straightforward. Ensure the issues you spotlight are aligned with what your brand stands for—and what it can meaningfully do. For example, Coke focuses on water conservation. Nike tackles human rights in its supply chain. Intel dedicates itself to promoting science, math and technology education. It’s also a good practice to rely on natural language that builds common ground. Use analogies to translate complex concepts. Choose boundaries wisely; begin with the smallest bits necessary to make your case, and then build from there. As with most things, simpler is better. We all know the cautions against greenwashing. It kills a brand’s credibility, turns off audiences and invites blowback. Yet greenwashing persists, with far-reaching repercussions. In poll after poll, a majority of consumers say they don’t believe what many brands say about sustainability. Many also complain they’re confused by conflicting claims, so they’re more likely to tune everyone out. To counteract skepticism and build trust, don’t be afraid to reveal where you fall short. Invite feedback—and respond promptly when your audiences take you up on your invitation. Don’t deceive through omission, and realize that it’s OK to admit when you don’t know something. By presenting a realistic view of sustainability, you’ll make it easier for your audiences to relate to your challenges and respect your position. Ensure the issues you spotlight are aligned with what your brand stands for—and what it can meaningfully do. 2 KEEP IT SIMPLE 3 BUILD TRUST
  • 3. 3AHA! | 7 KEYS TO CONNECTING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE promotions, Innocent expresses a consistent brand voice. Sustainability happens to be an integral part of its overall persona. For most, learning by doing is more effective—and satisfying—than sitting through a lecture. Much like animating a brand promise, modeling ways to incorporate sustainability into lives and businesses makes it more tangible and relevant. The idea is to step away from the soapbox and put commitment into practice and ideas into action. PG&E presents a good example of education through engagement. Through its Energenius program, the California-based utility distributes materials designed to teach K–8 students how to conserve energy and other natural resources. By providing teachers with free lesson plans, activity books and other exercises that emphasize fun, how-to By presenting a realistic view of sustainability, you’ll make it easier for your audiences to relate to your challenges and respect your position. The UK-based smoothie and juice company Innocent is particularly good at this. On its website, through its blog and in its e-newsletter, Innocent uses clear and concise language to describe its sustainability ambitions (see point #2 above) while acknowledging that the devil is in the details. For example, consider how it talks about responsibly sourcing ingredients: Of course, we can’t promise our suppliers are perfect. We’re certainly not perfect, so we can’t expect them to be either. But we do ask that they abide by fair, minimum standards, and work to improve their social and environmental performance year on year. By being blunt, Innocent bolsters its credibility. The company has set a high bar for itself, but has also set realistic expectations, giving it the latitude to describe its shortcomings—as well as a stronger platform to share its successes. This approach is consistent with how Innocent talks about all aspects of its business. From its products to its 4 ENGAGE RATHER THAN EXPLAIN Modeling ways to incorporate sustainability into lives and businesses makes it more tangible and relevant.
  • 4. 4AHA! | 7 KEYS TO CONNECTING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE learning, PG&E making sustainability relevant and accessible to the next generation. Not every communication lends itself to a classroom setting or providing helpful tips and tricks. But highlighting how others have adopted sustainable business practices or changed their habits can also be compelling. Particularly if the subject is someone your audience relates to or respects. Bonus points if the story comes directly from them— such as a first-person narrative or video interview—rather than interpreted by you. In a culture where embellishment is the norm and the race to be louder/bigger/flashier is ever accelerating, going against the grain can be the way to go. It’s the adage that to be heard, it’s better to speak softly than scream at the top of your lungs. You want your audience to lean forward, not cover their ears. There’s a critical difference between being modest and being meek, though. So rather than have your brand assert leadership, model it. Show up where others go missing. Promote results over intentions: The grandest vision carries less weight than on-the-ground impact. And talk less about yourself while empowering others to speak on your brand’s behalf. Method is the poster child for this approach. In just 10 years, the company has almost singlehandedly pushed the detergent and cleaner industry on the path toward greater sustainability. While Method was founded on the premise of sustainability— its innovative products use plant-based materials rather than ingredients made from petroleum and are formulated to require significantly less packaging—it doesn’t tout its green credentials. Instead, the company distinguishes itself with bold packaging and products that outperform conventional alternatives. Its goal is to attract customers, not gain converts to sustainability. But once in the fold, Method’s customers often become ambassadors for the brand, sharing the company’s sustainability leadership at a higher volume—and with more credibility—than the company could do on its own. By downplaying sustainability, Method stands out. 5 GO AGAINST THE GRAIN To be heard, it’s better to speak softly than scream at the top of your lungs. You want your audience to lean forward, not cover their ears.
  • 5. 5AHA! | 7 KEYS TO CONNECTING WITH YOUR AUDIENCE Sustainability suffers from an image problem. It’s not sexy. It doesn’t point to fame or riches. And it sounds more like work than fun. One way to get over this hurdle is to associate sustainability with things—experiences, values, goals and, ultimately, brands—that people enjoy and care about. The halo effect can make sustainability more enticing. For example, one of the chief reasons more companies are taking sustainability seriously is because they’re recognizing its business benefits. By making their operations more energy efficient, they save money. Similarly, partnering with communities to address social challenges can lead to innovative products and open up markets. Put another way: On its own, sustainability is a lofty ideal. Paired with the opportunity to save or, better yet, make money, sustainability becomes key to running a successful business. Or, for the rest of us, living a more fulfilling life. Which approach do you think will catch the CEO’s (or consumer’s) attention? In practice, begin by recognizing what moves your audience and look for ties to your brand promise. Tap into positive feelings, and appeal to dreams and desires. Show how sustainability is already embedded in their jobs and daily experiences instead of something that’s foreign or difficult. The goal isn’t to trick people into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise: It’s to help them embrace sustainability as relevant and desirable. It’s vital to recognize that social media and sustainability are a natural match. Principles of sustainability—community, authenticity, transparency—also drive social media. Your communications should reflect that overlap, or you risk being ignored and dismissed. Broadcasting top-down messages just doesn’t cut it in the era of Twitter and Facebook. Neither does the once-and-done nature of the annual sustainability report. While the report is important, it serves a specialized purpose—to disclose policies and performance to a relatively narrow audience. 6 BORROW A HALO Associate sustainability with things—experiences, values, goals and, ultimately, brands—that people enjoy and care about. 7 CREATE A SOCIAL COMMUNICATIONS PLATFORM
  • 6. because it’s personal. Sustainability is the underlying point, but not the full story. There’s room for real people and their experiences. A FINAL WORD Transforming sustainability from something that’s for our own good into something that’s just plain good is essential to its broader adoption. Tackling this challenge can give forward-thinking brands an edge. By rethinking how they’re communicating sustainability to make it more accessible, relevant and desirable, brands can better engage with stakeholders and reap the benefits of leadership. CHRISTIAN HICKS leads creative strategy and content development for AHA!’s corporate responsibility practice, guiding sustainability reports, corporate messaging and communication programs from inception to execution. He has led AHA! teams in helping leaders such as Microsoft, HP, Hasbro, ESCO and Tiffany & Co. align their CR communications with their brand and business goals. Christian has a master’s degree in English from The Ohio State University and a bachelor’s degree in English from Binghamton University. Communications that leaders stake their future on aha-writers.com Brands aren’t about disclosure. They’re about engagement and dialogue. So rather than rely on a sustainability report, they should reach out to diverse audiences in multiple ways with a communications platform. Think of the communications platform as an ongoing stream of content that translates goals and data into human-sized stories of insight, action and impact that are customized for specific audiences. It’s going beyond a static, meticulously controlled accounting of performance to create a forum for education and engagement. GE does a great job of thinking like a publisher and using social media to its advantage. Its GE Reports brings together an array of rich content—feature stories, interactive exhibits, photo essays and videos—that explores sustainability (and other issues) in ways that are both educational and inspirational. Levi’s is another premier brand following this path. The Levi’s Unzipped site compiles slice-of-life stories, many from employees, that reveal how sustainability is integral to the company and its products. It’s effective

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