Storytelling can help communicate sustainability value to investors

The vast majority of investors see sustainability as an opportunity and a business advantage, but most also say companies don’t successfully communicate how “sustainability initiatives are linked to their strategy, financial performance and value in meaningful ways.”

That’s according to research by Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), a U.K.-based initiative that works under the aegis of the United Nations Global Compact. Investor Study: Insights from PRI Signatories, co-written with Accenture, finds that a majority of CEOs (still only 57 percent, but that’s a topic for another day) say they are able to set out their sustainability strategy. However, only 9 percent of investors say that CEOs can do this. And while 38 percent of CEOs say they communicate the business value of their efforts, only 7 percent of investors agree.

These findings reveal “a striking gap which exposes the shortcomings of many companies in effectively communicating their approach to sustainability and its links to the traditional measures of business value and success,” says the report.

The PRI report makes a number of recommendations for addressing this challenge, though curiously, only one—“focus on opportunity and value,” rather than risk and mitigation—is fundamentally about communications. The others are suggestions for systemic changes often beyond the scope of an individual company: commitment to the long term, developing the knowledge base of investment advisors, developing common metrics across industry sectors, collaborating with policymakers to reshape markets and systems. These are worthy efforts, but they overlook something every company can do that I believe would vastly shrink the communications gap: create strong brand stories for sustainability.

This is a significant overlooked opportunity. Few companies are telling sustainability brand stories, but they can deliver a range of benefits from improving investor communications to gaining customer buy-in to motivating internal teams. A sustainability story can:

  • Enable you to realize the brand value of your sustainability investment
  • Clearly articulate your sustainability mission so people at all levels align around it
  • Support increased investment in sustainability program funding
  • Integrate your sustainability story with your brand story and overall business objectives
  • Clearly articulate your value and values to all audiences
  • Serve as a lodestar for evaluating potential actions

To be sure, investors want hard business facts. And it would be simplistic to say that a brand sustainability story alone will give investors the information they seek—there needs to be a “there there.” But stories bring facts to life and make them memorable. They resonate in ways hard numbers don’t; a story connects the dots to the wider world as well as to the company’s own vision and goals.

Fully communicating value and benefits requires a story that engages the heart as well as the mind. Giving sustainability a narrative that places the company’s efforts in context, highlights the people involved (both those who are acting and those who benefit), illustrates qualitative as well as quantitative value, chronicles the journey, and maps that journey to goals will help companies provide the information that investors—and customers—need to spend their money wisely.

Start off 2015 with the right content marketing metrics

Like my partner, I’m not going to kick off 2015 by generating a list of prognostications about sustainability marketing. But in the spirit of the fresh-start season, I do want to call attention to one of the myths about content marketing: results can’t be measured.

The reality is that it takes some effort, but it can (and should) be done. What better way to start off a new year than to get serious about metrics, from your blog to white papers to social media?

The measures that matter, of course, are whether content marketing generates leads, moves people along your sales funnel and boosts profitability. A simple example: someone entirely new to you signs up for a report on your website and later becomes a customer; it’s fair to conclude that your content played a role. The complicating factors: that may take a while; there are probably other “touches” that contributed to the sale; and in many cases you won’t know when people see your content.

How you measure results (and how often) will vary by your sales process, your volume and the scope of your efforts. But regardless of the particulars of your situation, it’s essential to closely track your sales process as well as responses to your content at every step and in every channel (and each channel has its own measurement opportunities). Some key questions: How may new leads does your content generate? What’s the cost, compared with other methods? Are they real leads? Are they sticking around?

It’s not as complicated as it sounds—choose the measurements that are right for your programs and track them. (Focus is key!) The Content Marketing Institute provides excellent and detailed advice and examples; here’s a good article to get you thinking. And for more on content marketing, check out our Content Marketing: Myth vs. Reality guide.

Happy New Year!

We decode the DNA of sexy sustainability marketing: part 2

In support of our mission to make sustainability sexy, we’ve been teasing out exactly what constitutes sexiness in marketing—that magic combination of qualities that creates magnetic attraction and inspires an “I want that” reaction.

Last week we outlined the first three elements of our HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy) and Looks. This week we focus on final and most important elements: Intelligence and the X Factor. Sustainability marketing that’s sexy checks at least one of these boxes.

Intelligence: the hottest quality
Intelligence is the one absolutely essential quality of sexy sustiness—for the simple reason that without it, whatever you’re selling is not sustainable. Truly sustainable products, services and behaviors are just flat-out better, smarter and often more technically advanced than conventional options. But it’s not enough for a new product or idea to be smart—you have to market the smart. And you have to do in a way that makes the genius instantly clear and compelling.

Many companies don’t do this effectively. They worry that the intelligence factor is too complicated to explain, or, conversely, they make it too complicated and most people just don’t get it. To reach a wide audience, we need to frame the intelligence factor in a way that the market will immediately recognize as smart. A good example: Plum Organics baby food pouches are less resource-intensive than glass jars, but their light, bright, no-spill and self-feeding qualities are what make them irresistible to busy parents.

There’s always a way to get to the core of genius. If marketers spend time on nothing else, they should work at this for as long as it takes. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when people instantly see what’s smart about your offering—and feel smart for wanting it.

The X Factor: that je ne sais quoi
The X Factor is the functional opposite of intelligence—it’s not essential, but it can override every unsexy thing about what you’re pitching. Have you ever fallen in love with something and not really been able to explain why? (You may have lied to yourself and rationalized the purchase with some practical advantage.) That’s the X Factor—the utterly compelling thing you can’t pin down.

If we can’t define it, how can we pursue it? The X Factor is akin to cool, but more powerful. Behavioral scientists have defined the essence of cool as a Goldilocks kind of unconventionality—something that’s different from the norm, but not so different it seems bizarre (to the people judging the coolness). The X Factor has that and more—it hits a deep emotional chord, and it lives in a certain tension between prior realities and new possibilities.

Apple’s introductions of both the iPod and iPhone were models of X Factor marketing, creating a physical itch in customers’ palms. We didn’t know we needed them, but we wanted it. This isn’t just about newness (plenty of new things fail), but about mysterious wonderfulness.

We’re looking for examples of all five HELIX qualities in action in the marketing of sustainable products, services and campaigns—please comment and clue us in.

Miss part one of this post? It’s here.

We decode the DNA of sexy sustainability marketing

When we embarked on our new mission to make sustainability sexy, we promised we weren’t going to wing it. We’ve been working on cracking the code for sexiness in marketing—that magic combination of qualities that creates magnetic attraction and inspires an “I want that” reaction.

We think we’ve found it. We’re calling it (provisionally) the HELIX code: Humor, Emotion (or Empathy), Looks, Intelligence and the X factor. Marketing that’s sexy has at least one of these elements, usually more. Making susty sexy—whether you’re talking about a product, service or behavior change campaign—requires identifying those qualities in sustainability benefits and playing them up. Here is a sketch of our code work for the first three elements.

Humor: the most viral quality
Humor can make even the most mundane products and services desirable, and it’s the rocket fuel powering most viral successes. (There’s a reason “sense of humor” appears in every personal ad writer’s list of must-haves, acing out even long walks on the beach.) Research on humor in advertising consistently finds that funny ads are more memorable and likeable. A related finding: neuroscientists say that humor activates the brain’s reward system.

So—humor, good. And we’re not just talking about jokes. Whimsy counts too, along with being wry, silly and playful (think “Story of Stuff” or “Solar Freakin’ Roadways”). Humor is tricky—we don’t all find the same things funny. But if you know your audience, you can find a way to amuse them that will grab their attention and open them up to your message.

Emotion: the key to our hearts
Susty marketing needs to hit people in the id. Any product or service worth having solves problems or satisfies desires, and the best do both. But marketing sustainability often focuses on solving the world’s problems when it needs to focus on solving peoples’ problems in a way that hooks into emotion and shows empathy. (Can we make “save the planet” go away, please?) Brain imaging research shows that people rely most on emotions—feelings and experiences—when evaluating brands.

There are plenty of ways tap emotions with marketing, including storytelling, demonstrating empathy for your audience’s problems, and appealing to people’s aspiration and self-image. Just do it.

Looks: they really do count
As the likes of Target, Ikea and Apple have proved, good design sells—to a broad market and at any price range. Some sustainable brands clearly know this—Method is the best-known susty example of building a brand based on looking good. But many brands seem stuck in a DIY, low-budget aesthetic that tries to say “authentic” but really says “inferior, crunchy, not cool.” Looks do matter, from beginning to end—in product design and packaging, and in the company’s graphic identity, website and collateral design. For growth companies, this is not a place to cut corners. It can’t just be lipstick on a pig, either—susty products often have superior functionality, and they should show it off.

We talk about the two absolutely essential elements of the HELIX sexy susty code—intelligence and the X factor—in our Dec. 9 post. We’re looking for examples of all these qualities in action in the marketing of sustainable products, services and campaigns—please comment and clue us in.


To make a powerful impression, build (and use) a strong messaging platform

A messaging platform is the foundation of powerful communications. Why?

  • It provides a crisp and compelling explanation of what your company is all about—and that’s especially important if you have a complex or novel product or service.
  • It makes it easy for everyone in your organization to speak clearly and confidently about your work, which expands your marketing reach and turns employees across the business into brand ambassadors.
  • It makes your unique qualities and benefits more memorable—it’s hard for anyone to remember what you do if they’ve heard it described three different ways.

A strong platform rests on four pillars: It’s concrete—it creates a clear picture of what you’re doing. It’s relatable—it’s in plain language, relates new ideas to concepts your audiences already understand and feels authentic to the people using it. It’s catchy—it’s easy to remember and say. And it’s flexible—it’s readily adaptable to the person using it, the communication channel and the audience.

It’s not enough just to build it, though—you have to get people to come to it, embrace it and make it come alive. We’ve found in creating messaging platforms for a range of clients that follow-up support is the key to realizing full benefits. It’s essential that top executives promote the messaging enthusiastically, that everyone understands the benefits of using it and that people have appropriate tools and training in using the messaging in real-life situations.

Do all this and you’ll have powerful messaging—people throughout your company will communicate clearly and consistently about what you do and why it matters, you’ll be effectively positioned in media coverage and people will remember you.

Find more ways to energize your brand communications in Thinkshift’s Strategy>Shift guide, 9 Ways to Make a Powerful Impression. Dig deeper into building a strong messaging platform with Messaging 101: 5 Keys to Unlocking your Verbal Brand.