Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How businesses can engage consumers in their sustainability stories | The Guardian

Consumers are facing information overload. Tapping into people’s values and sharing positive messages will help connect over sustainability

Communicating simple, inspiring stories of efforts to tackle complex social and environmental issues is an ongoing challenge for today’s businesses. Somewhere amid the cacophony of sustainability communications, consumers are reaching information overload.

As the effects of corporate ‘greenwashing’, ethical scandals and climate change doom-mongering take their toll, a kind of apathy is taking hold. Globally, just 28% of people believes business is doing enough to protect the planet and contribute to society, according to Accenture and the UN Global Compact (pdf).

In 10 years, the pressure to deliver concrete proof of green claims will intensify. “We’ll see a push for radical transparency and increasing scrutiny of businesses by consumers,” says Futerra co-founder Ed Gillespie. “To make their sustainability stories stand out from the crowd, businesses will need to make a fundamental transition – to reconnect with a deeper sense of purpose. This must fit perfectly with their core business, capture how they add value to the world, and resonate with people emotionally and rationally.”

So how will businesses of the future communicate their sustainability stories effectively and, further, inspire people to take action?

Tuning into values


Encouraging people to consume less and make lifestyle changes will largely depend on companies’ abilities to tap into people’s value systems, believes Eda Gurel-Atay, researcher and author of Communicating Sustainability for the Green Economy.

“Companies can’t change people’s deep-rooted social values, so they’ll need to try harder to understand them,” says Gurel-Atay. “This means tuning into the value systems of audiences in different countries, and personalising communications – tailoring messages to connect with people’s values and motivations.”

Telling sustainability stories in this way will also tap into the millennial market, according to Karen Deignan, senior consultant at SalterBaxter. “This is a generation who are more socially aware than ever and want to buy from brands that connect with them on issues they care about,” she explains.

Indeed, 83% of global millennials want brands and companies to become more active in solving the world’s challenges, research by MSL Group suggests.

Seeing is believing

In addition to delivering transparent evidence of their own results, tomorrow’s businesses will need to consider how to reflect the results of their customers’ actions. People will want to see how their contribution is making a tangible difference to the world, Gurel-Atay predicts. Social media could play an important role here. For example, the Instant hero campaign by bottled water company One Water gave customers the opportunity to project themselves as superheroes online – complete with cape and power boots – to highlight their contribution to delivering clean water to developing communities in Africa.

Collaborating with audiences

“We’ll see companies taking a far more interactive approach to sustainability communications,” says Gillespie. “Businesses will increasingly look to crowdsource ideas, and campaigns will become a lot more participatory. It will be more about businesses and consumers working in partnership, making decisions as a team.”

Nick Liddell, strategy director at design business Dragon Rouge agrees that “it will be a completely different kind of relationship.” “Central to this will be abandoning one-directional broadcasts and seeing consumers as people. That way, companies will be able to engage with people in multiple ways, beyond the straight consumption of goods.”

One corporate-backed initiative tapping into the spirit of collaboration is Collectively, a new editorial platform launched by Forum for the Future and major businesses including Unilever, Coca-Cola, M&S, BT and Carlsberg. Formed to encourage millennials to make sustainable lifestyles ‘the new normal’, it aims to inspire change by encouraging participation with positive stories of hope and progression.

Focusing on the positive

“Brands will need to communicate in a more sophisticated, strategic way to capture people’s imagination,” says Liddell. “This starts with knowing when not to share good work that people expect you to be doing anyway, and being more rigorous about communicating the things that really add value.”

Changing the language of sustainability communications will be central to this transition: in short, business must adopt a simpler, more upbeat rhetoric. “Sustainability is the only field where ‘zero’ is seen as a good thing,” continues Liddell. “Businesses must make a wholesale change from communicating efforts to reduce impacts to leading on value and benefits.” For example the light-hearted Intermarch√© ‘Inglorious fruits and vegetables’ campaign, which highlighted the benefits of buying ugly produce, proved so popular in France that the supermarket’s competitors have since followed suit.

Mainstreaming sustainability

“Today, sustainability is often marketed as an add-on feature, rather than an aspirational brand ethos or promise,” concludes Deignan. “Fast forward 10 years and it will stand for a whole range of benefits that, combined together, simply mean ‘better’. Substantiating this big picture message will mean highlighting exactly how the product or service is smarter, healthier or fairer in readily understandable terms.”

BMW already refers to its new generation of electric cars as “redefining mobility”. The product claims to be creating a better future for urban travel, weaving the green credentials of its ‘i’ series within a broader message on innovative design and convenience.

As sustainability becomes a key ingredient in the way brands communicate, people are more likely to absorb the message without even realising there’s a green agenda. And it is not inconceivable to hope that one day we will describe businesses, not by turnover or share value, but by how they are making society better.