How businesses can engage consumers in their sustainability stories

How businesses can engage consumers in their sustainability stories

Communicating simple, inspiring stories of corporate efforts to tackle complex, interrelated social and environmental issues is an ongoing challenge for today’s businesses. Somewhere amid the cacophony of sustainability communications, consumers (otherwise known as people) are fast reaching information overload. And as the effects of so-called ‘greenwashing’, scandals and climate change doom-mongering take their toll, apathy is taking hold. Just 28% of people globally believe business is doing enough to protect the planet and contribute to society, according to Accenture and the UN Global Compact (pdf). Cut to ten years’ time, and 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 people’s values

Encouraging people to consume less and make lifestyle changes in the face of growing resource scarcity and climate change will largely depend on companies’ abilities to tap into people’s value systems. So 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,” explains 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 millennials’ desire to buy from brands that share their values, 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 also need to consider how to reflect the results of customers’ actions in a real and relevant way. 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 ethical 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.”

“It will be a completely different kind of relationship,” agrees Nick Liddell, strategy director at Dragon Rouge. “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.

Focussing 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 -adopting a simpler, 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.”

The Intermarché ‘Inglorious fruits and vegetables’ campaign, for example, which highlighted the benefits of buying ugly produce in a light-hearted way, proved so popular in France that the supermarket’s competitors have since followed suit.

Mainstreaming sustainability

“Today, sustainability is often marketed an add-on feature, rather than an aspirational brand ethos or promise,” concludes Deignan. “Fast forward ten 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, for example, refers to its new generation of electric cars as ‘redefining mobility’ – creating a better future for urban travel, weaving the green credentials of its ‘i’ series within the broader messages of innovative design and convenience.

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

This article was originally published on the Guardian Sustainable Business site.