Engaging Customers With Your Sustainability Story

Show Don't Tell: 5 Characteristics of a Powerful Sustainability Story

February 19th, 2018

Once upon a time, all it took was a catchy jingle or a memorable slogan to build awareness and your brand’s reputation. A lot has changed. Every day, the technology that surrounds us bombards our lives in a never-ending stream of information: calls, texts, social media updates, and brands all vying for our attention.

In an attempt to make sense of it all, consumers are seeking out purpose-driven relationships with brands. Despite rising living costs and inflation, people have proven they will pay more when companies can demonstrate that sustainability and social responsibility are more than meaningless buzzwords.

To do this, more and more brands are turning to the art of storytelling. Those who do it well, cut through the cacophony of the digital age and connect with their audience. Those who don’t — or don’t attempt to do it — risk losing customers, investors, and employees.

So, how can you craft a strong sustainability story that not only tells your audience what you’re doing, but also shows your steadfast commitment to it?

Below we highlight five essential ingredients that can help you bring your sustainability initiatives out of the shadows and foster greater trust with your customers by creating an authentic narrative that sticks.

1. Materiality

Simply put, materiality matters. If your story doesn’t touch on the points that are most important to your various stakeholder groups, it will fall flat.

One way to uncover what matters most to your stakeholders is to conduct a materiality assessment. The insights that you glean can help you align your business strategy to engage key stakeholders by showing them they matter.

Sustainability, enveloped in a fog of terms such as resource scarcity, circular supply chains, sustainable sourcing, climate change, and eco-efficiency, doesn’t mean anything to the average person. Worse yet, there is often a disconnect between information disclosed to stakeholders and the data that drives business decisions. Successful sustainability stories translate the issue into concepts real people can relate to: betterment, purpose, and well-being to name a few.

If you don’t have the internal resources or expertise to conduct a materiality assessment, get in touch with a sustainability consulting firm. These experts offer broad-based knowledge, expertise, tools, and an independent perspective to help you uncover what’s most important to your key stakeholders.

2. Authenticity  

These days, it’s getting increasingly difficult for companies to hide behind their mission statements. Consumers and investors are demanding more transparency and action. People want to work for a company that is committed to making a real difference in the world, not just their bottom lines. And they can detect weak attempts at greenwashing a mile away.

The best way to stand out in the world is by being true to yourself. Cliché, but true. Your customers and employees want to know how your sustainability goals fit with your brand personality. Crafting an authentic sustainability story starts with familiarizing — or reacquainting — yourself with your organization’s raison d'être so you can align yourself with sustainable development goals that reflect your core values.

Once you can effectively communicate your “why,” set realistic goals, hold yourself accountable, and be honest about your progress.

3. Transparency

According to Nielsen, brand trust tops the list of sustainability factors that influence purchasing decisions. Sharing information on your products — and their environmental, cultural, social, and economic impact — boosts your image and earns trust.

Unilever is a great example of a company being incredibly forthcoming about its sustainability initiatives, giving detailed accounts of how it uses data, how it defines and prioritizes its investments, and what they’ve accomplished. When it comes to home and personal care products, the transnational consumer goods company has even surpassed government regulations to ensure consumer safety.

Their commitment to transparency has paid off. The company says its “sustainable living” brands have grown 30% faster than the rest of the business.

4. Purpose

You can’t lump purpose in with your company’s values or its mission statement. According to John Platko, our Chief Strategy Officer and AA4S Solution Leader, today’s most forward-thinking businesses are looking beyond sustainability as a business strategy and redefining their purpose to focus on creating shared value. Company leaders are increasingly shifting their focus to create broader stakeholder value as a key driver of long-term business success.

5. Amplification

This isn’t just about “marketing” your story through owned or traditional earned channels. This is about giving your stakeholders and audience a seat at the table, allowing them to have their voices be heard and lending real voices to your narrative. Once again, materiality and other stakeholder activities come into play, not only providing crucial insight into the minds of stakeholders but also the means through which to shape their perception.

Thomas Kolster, founder of Goodvertising, got it right when he said that brands today aren’t built by what you tell people about you, but by what people tell each other about you.

So, once you’ve got a compelling story in place and something that will pique interest, seek out the local news, your contacts at industry publications, and brand influencers so your story gets told.

What’s Your Sustainability Story?

People talk in stories. They remember stories. They connect to stories on an emotional level. If you give people a single page from your book, you can’t expect it to top the bestseller list. You’ve got to give people the whole story so they can connect with the characters and the plot.

No one said that crafting a sustainable sustainability story would be easy, but incorporate the five characteristics we covered in this post, and you’ll be on well on your way to telling yours.

Discover how a Fortune 100 company engaged an entire community with its sustainability story.

Contact us to help you develop your sustainability story


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