How Brands Can Use Sustainability to Connect with Audiences
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
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 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
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
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
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
2 KEEP IT SIMPLE
3 BUILD TRUST
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
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
Modeling ways to
into lives and businesses
makes it more tangible
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
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
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
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
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
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
values, goals and, ultimately,
brands—that people enjoy
and care about.
7 CREATE A SOCIAL
because it’s personal. Sustainability is the
underlying point, but not the full story.
There’s room for real people and their
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
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