Everyone agrees: brands are failing on sustainability—and marketing is part of the problem

New research confirms what the evidence has been pointing to for some time: companies are frustrated because even though consumers say sustainability is important, they aren’t buying it; consumers, on the other hand, say businesses aren’t living up to expectations in sustainability matters.

In short, almost everyone thinks that “business is failing to take care of the planet and society,” says the intro to From Marketing to Mattering, which follows up the UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability with research on the views of 30,000 consumers worldwide. What intrigues me most are the researchers’ conclusions about the need for better marketing.

Essentially, companies are failing to include sustainability in their core purpose. It’s not an integrated part of their brand—it’s an adjunct, something they do over there, in that part of the company, and write up in their CSR report. Brands are not connecting sustainability benefits to their products and services or to what matters to the people who buy them.

The report notes that “traditional skills of marketing have been either absent or detached from companies’ long-term efforts on sustainability.” Businesses offer a lot of facts and figures, but they’re not connecting to buyers emotionally. And people are frustrated that they can’t “easily identify” more responsible brands.

I’m sure that a look at brands with sustainability concerns at their core, such as Patagonia, Method and Plum Organics (to name just three), and the people who use their products would reveal a very different picture. These companies are adept at marketing communications: they tell a strong story that conveys values. And those values, in turn, are clearly reflected in their products, whose beauty and quality make them alluring to customers.

The researchers know this. “More responsible, sustainable brands are desirable and offer competitive advantage to companies able to effectively communicate the message,” the report says, adding that selling sustainability alongside other things people value (price, product quality, availability and service) is “likely to deliver superior returns.”

Yet companies aren’t acting. While most CEOs (76 percent) say they want to integrate sustainability across the business, they are stymied. And here’s the kicker: from 2011 to 2013, the proportion of companies reporting that their marketing function was “engaged” in sustainability dropped from 41 percent to 28 percent. (The report authors used the quotations; they don’t define what’s meant.) And framing sustainability in terms of what matters to people has been “abandoned in favor of a wave of data.”

I’m all for data—it’s needed to back up any claim. But we—brands, marketers and the people we speak to—also need a story that connects to our emotions and values.

How to tell if your messages sing the right tune

You’ve crafted your messaging platform. You built it on a foundation of research (your market and customers) and exploration (who you really are and what you want to be). It’s designed for usability and impact.

Your messages are woven into your website and sales collateral. You have talking points and a social media guide. You’ve trained frontline staff and others so they can talk about your business confidently and consistently.

But how will you know if the platform is effective? Successful messaging hits all the following marks. If it doesn’t, it’s time to take another swing at it.

Messages are authentic. A key test is whether people in your organization genuinely connect with the messages. For that to happen, messages need to be written in natural, ordinary language, so that your people are comfortable using them and audiences respond to them. Jargon, corporate speak and vague phrasing won’t cut it.

The messaging get used. Reporters use it when writing about the company. Partner organizations use it when they describe you on their website. Employees use it, not just in presentations and formal communications, but also on their LinkedIn and Facebook pages and when they talk about their work with friends.

For one company we work with, the test came with the release of significant company news requiring media outreach and a new partnership. It was gratifying to see the messaging take hold and appear in newspaper articles, customer blog posts and on a partner website. Meanwhile, employees used it on their LinkedIn pages and elsewhere.

The messaging is flexible. Good messaging provides a starting point for any communications task, whether it’s a pithy quote from the CEO in a press release, a boilerplate description of the company, or the brand voice and framework for a report, presentation or website.

A messaging platform should provide messages that are as close to plug-and-play as possible, with examples for as many contexts as makes sense. But messaging shouldn’t be rigid. It should adapt to circumstance and the person using it, the communications vehicle, the audience and other factors.

This is part two of a series of posts on messaging and how to use it. Missed the first one? It’s here. Can’t wait for the rest of the series? For the complete scoop, download our Strategy>Shift guide, Messaging 101: 5 Keys to Unlocking your Verbal Brand.

Maintaining marketing effectiveness during rapid change

Young, rapidly growing organizations are exciting. The pace is fast, and everything—markets, the product or service, the organization itself—is in a constant state of flux and evolution. But that can make communicating tough: The story changes and messaging shifts. Executives can’t agree on a visual identity. The website redesign gets put on the back burner. Collateral seems outdated two weeks after it’s finished.

In situations like these, the key to reaching your strategic communications goals is staying on the offensive. Here are a few surefire ways to achieve communications sanity during rapid change.

Get the basics in order. Make sure you have a strong foundation for communications: a clear picture of your market position, where you want to go, the people you need to reach to get there, and what they care about. Don’t spend money on new materials before you have that foundation: if you need a new brand identity but do a quick and dirty job just because you want your old logo off the website now, you’ll launch a cycle of costly and not-quite-on-target revisions.

Focus on loyalists. Stay in touch with the people who are key to your success, even if you communicate with no one else. And recognize that they may need more communication, not less, if you’re in a state of change. Communication with key audiences doesn’t have to be fancy (in some circumstances, it shouldn’t be), but it should answer questions that are likely to come up.

Keep it lean. Now is not the time to take on optional projects or complicated marketing initiatives.

Keep it simple. It’s always better to do a few things well than many things badly. Always.

Build in flexibility. The ability to quickly accommodate internal changes and respond to shifts in the market without overhauling everything will help you stay current. Make sure your website is structured for easy revision and expansion, for example, and print only what you need.

Control freelancing. When targets are constantly moving, people often step up and create their own materials, thinking they are helping. They’re not: “freelance” communications confuse messaging at best and cost you credibility at worst. If you see this happening, put a stop to it—and take the hint that the freelancers need communications support.

Tips for using storytelling to drive engagement

Want to truly engage your key audiences and make a lasting impression? One surefire way is to tell a story.

Stories are the oldest form of “mass” communication, and some researchers think we’re hardwired to respond to them. We’re certainly trained to draw messages from them—think Aesop’s fables and classic novels—and that makes them invaluable for marketing communications. Stories help people relate to what you do, and compelling stories help you get media attention.

High-tech companies have long recognized the value of the founder’s story—so much so that the inventor developing breakthrough technology in his garage (naysayers be damned!) has become a cliché.

But there seems to be an endless appetite for stories of improbable success. That’s why, when telling the story of fair trade clothing manufacturer Indigenous for our client RSF Social Finance, we started with the founders’ early days of picking burrs out of handknit South American sweaters. It’s a memorable image that shows how far the company has come—Indigenous now produces a full line of premium fashion knits sold under its own label and through major brands—and illustrates the company’s commitment to its artisan supply chain.

A few more tips for telling stories effectively:

Use story structure. Stories have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end; crisis (or challenge) and resolution; and characters.

Make it personal. Have a central character your audience will relate to or be fascinated by.

Character counts. Don’t just recount the plot—include feelings, intuitions, or drive.

Remember the moral. Spell out how the story expresses your organization’s mission or value.

Download our Strategy>Shift guide 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression for more ways to help your business stand out from the crowd.

Sustainability: much more than green

Sustain: supply with sustenance, nourish.

Sustainable: of, relating to, or being a method of… using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.

One key (and obvious) aspect of sustainable communications is being environmentally responsible. We urge clients to consume as few nonrenewable resources and as little energy as possible. Use electronic media rather than print whenever possible, for example. And when paper is unavoidable, print only what’s needed and use vegetable-based inks and paper with 100 percent post-consumer recycled content (the quality and choices are getting better all the time, and recycling no longer requires bleach or harmful chemicals).

But keeping your environmental footprint as small as possible is just one part of sustainable communications. It also requires making sure your own resources maintain the ability to feed and support your programs. Before you embark on any program, honestly assess your organization’s ability to support the work over the long haul without budget strain or staff burnout, and develop communications that will serve you as well as possible for as long as possible.

For instance, a website redesign that lasts several years is far more efficient (and effective) than one that will need another update in a year, so take the extra time and care up front to nail the messaging, design and technology. You may have plans to take the social media world by storm—but you need to map out a strategy that your staff can manage and execute over time. And your organization may be well served by content marketing (such blogging, reports or a newsletter), but only if you have the time and informational resources to keep it going long enough to gain traction.

Sustainability in any arena requires commitment. But it’s worth it: If you nourish your communications programs over the long term and keep them fresh and healthy, they’ll pay you back by helping sustain your business.

Learn more about our approach and how we build sustainability into our marketing services.