As consumers and regulators increasingly judge firms by their perceived as well as actual sustainability practices, getting the messaging right becomes ever more important
One of the biggest lessons brands learned over the last 18 months was that the clarity, content, and consistency, of their messaging around sustainability mattered. With the disruptions brought about by COVID-19 and the global pandemic response, many firms found themselves consumed by day-to-day logistical and operational issues. As a result, communication suffered… and brands took the reputational and marketplace hits hard.
According to a survey from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), some 93% of CEOs believe that consumers will hold businesses accountable for sustainability. This belief is backed by behavior, as some 79% of consumers are changing their purchasing based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact shown by a brand, per new data from Capgemini Report.
Thus, to earn the financial rewards and consumer loyalty strong sustainability efforts merit, firms need to do a better job of communicating. Here’s a look at the keys that make this possible…
DETERMINE WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR CUSTOMERS AND KEY STAKEHOLDERS TO KNOW
An initial challenge in sustainability communications is figuring out what stories the business wants – or strategically needs – to tell to consumers and key stakeholders. While truthfulness, authenticity, and transparency are of course watchwords, it’s a simple fact that some markets and business partners care more about certain stories than others.
For example, in the American Southwest right now, drought conditions are a persistent issue for individuals and businesses alike. Companies who are able to share stories about water conservation, water recycling, or removing a need for fresh water from a manufacturing chain can connect with the public because that’s a conversation that’s meaningful and important to them. Stories about eliminating plastics, on the other hand, may not have the same perceived value within that regional market and thus may not, from a tactical business perspective, be as important for customers to hear.
This consideration of what’s important to share also holds true on a more B2B level, and when creating statements for regulatory bodies. Before any new press release or company report is drafted, the metrics that matter to industry watchdogs and regulatory bodies should be considered, as these may be different from consumer hot button issues. There may also be certain technical aspects to a sustainability practice that are best shared only with specific industry players who will respect that knowledge.
ESTABLISH A REGULAR SHARING SCHEDULE FOR SUSTAINABILITY UPDATES AND PRESS RELEASES
Along with carefully considering which sustainability stories will have most impact, it’s helpful to establish a regular sharing schedule for sustainability updates. This may be tied to annual required reporting, something meant to be included in quarterly earnings calls, or updates intended for use on company blogs or in social media.
A regular schedule helps manage the back-end tracking and production that goes into any sustainability narrative or metrics update. It also helps line managers and operations teams integrate sustainability communication into their regular business practices. This can make it easier for sustainability consciousness to become a part of the regular day-to-day instead of being thought of as only a part of “special” and potentially one-off publicity moves.
If necessary, establishing a regular reporting and communication schedule can be built into performance management plans. Make it a point to share the schedule with managers at all levels and ask what their department’s plan is for meeting these schedules. Having these plans in place means that even in times where every part of the business is majorly disrupted, such as what happened when COVID struck, systems are already in place to continue conversations and announcements without requiring special accommodations or extra staffing.
USE CONSISTENT MESSAGING ACROSS PRODUCTS AND REGIONS
The final key to effective sustainability communications is to use consistent messaging across products and regions.
It has been demonstrated that some companies that operate globally don’t use the same messaging in different markets when it comes to diversity and inclusion issues. The way brands change – or don’t change – their logos and background colors during Pride Month is a prime example. Having these differing messages creates a space for unflattering conversations to happen about the level of commitment to inclusive ideals.
When it comes to sustainability, on the other hand, there’s more worldwide consensus around the importance. According to a 2020 Global Euromonitor survey, some 47% of people actively try to make a positive impact on their environment through everyday actions. Additionally, some 53% of people feel they can make a difference with their purchases.
Plus, sustainability stories and business practice improvement examples from all parts of the world have the potential to be of interest to consumers around the globe. As an example, consider Adidas recent partnership with Parley, a company that’s focused on creating cleaner oceans. Adidas wanted to communicate that the company cared about the environment, while Parley wanted plastics out of the ocean. The subsequent shoes they created from recycled ocean plastic became a sustainability message that could be recounted in a uniformway to all of Adidas consumers and key stakeholders (plus 11 million shoes worth of plastic came out of the ocean… win-win!).
Altogether, brands and companies can effectively communicate about sustainability. First, consider what accomplishments and messages are important to share – the stories that need to be created and distributed. Next, set a communication schedule and make plans at the operational level to meet that schedule. Finally, be consistent about the story being told across regions and markets. In this way, the maximum reputational credit and market share can be earned from sustainable practices.