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Unlocking the Transformational Power of Sustainability Thought Leadership

Because it lacks the self-serving undercurrents associated with other types of marketing, sustainability thought leadership is one of the most effective tools for building trust among stakeholders while establishing your brand as an industry authority.

Thought leadership isn’t just another buzzword. According to LinkedIn and Edelman, more than 60 percent of C-suite executives said they were more willing to pay a premium to companies that create thought leadership with a clear vision, and 55 percent of business decision-makers said they increased spending with an organization based on its thought leadership. Additionally, LinkedIn reports that 83 percent of consumers say thought leadership creates confidence in brands.

Thought leadership can be defined as a communication platform that showcases your brand’s expertise and forward-thinking ideas. Unlike content marketing, thought leadership delivers value to stakeholders without being self-promotional. Because thought leadership lacks the self-serving undercurrents associated with all other types of marketing communications, it’s one of the most effective tools for building trust among stakeholders while establishing your brand as an industry authority.

In the sustainability space, thought leadership is especially powerful because it can lead to more than just increased trust and credibility. While sustainability communication tactics such as ESG reports, videos and social media are focused on telling your brand’s story, thought leadership taps into a broader conversation, reaching far beyond your brand to drive transformational change. In the ever-evolving continuum of sustainability, thought leaders can create a movement, reinvent an industry, and play an integral role in solving the world’s most pressing challenges. Think back to 1994, when the sustainability guru John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line,” launching a movement for businesses to embrace sustainability. Or what about when Interface founder Ray Anderson influenced the carpet industry — and subsequently all manufacturing industries — to embrace more sustainable business practices? Sustainability thought leadership isn’t just good for PR and marketing — it’s good for the world.

Beginning the journey to sustainability thought leadership

A thought leadership program is best suited for brands with a firmly established, mature sustainability strategy, rather than brands that are just getting started. If you are confident in your approach to sustainability, you can begin exploring thought leadership opportunities by taking inventory of where your company is already leading. Can you contribute unique insights surrounding a sustainability topic that matters to your stakeholders? Are these insights unique and relevant to your brand? Do you have a leader who can give voice to your opinions? By honing in on what you know, where you’re headed and what change you want to drive, you can begin identifying storylines and topics for which you’re naturally positioned to take a lead. Ask yourself: What are your disruptive ideas that can spark a conversation — or better yet, a movement?

Choosing a champion

Decoding effective methods of driving consumer behavior change

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Companies recognized as thought leaders in the sustainability space almost always have a spokesperson who serves as the face of their storytelling. This person must be influential, articulate and an established expert on the sustainability topic at hand. While C-suite executives typically have the greatest clout, anyone can become a sustainability thought leader within an organization if they possess the following traits:

  • Passion. Great thought leaders are deeply excited about the story they’re telling. When this genuine enthusiasm shines through, people take note and listen.

  • Distinct point of view. In addition to being established experts, thought leaders must possess clear, well-informed opinions that are entirely their own.

  • Commitment. Becoming an authority on a topic takes time. Thought leaders must continually demonstrate their expertise and ability to gauge what the future holds.

  • Guts. True sustainability thought leaders have the courage to lead. They aren’t afraid to take risks or stand up for what they believe.

Five personas of sustainability thought leaders

From challenging political legislation to disrupting an industry, your spokesperson can approach thought leadership from a number of different angles. Let’s explore the five different personas of sustainability thought leaders.

Growing your sustainability thought leadership program

Once you’ve identified your point of view, spokesperson and thought leadership persona, the next step is to produce a steady drumbeat of thought leadership content that ladders up to an overarching focus. Begin with digital pieces such as blog posts, white papers and LinkedIn articles, paying careful attention to discuss ideas rather than promote your business. When relevant, tap into timely events by contributing a unique point of view. Engage with relevant journalists as an expert source — not a PR person looking for press — to build mutually beneficial rapport. In the early stages, negotiate sponsored content in lieu of earned media.

Once you begin to build credibility, pursue speakerships at relevant events and conferences, ensuring that you always bring a unique perspective to the table. Consider leading conversations by hosting your own event, panel, or webinar. At the same time, focus on building your spokespersons’ personal brand so that you can leverage his or her influence for interviews, media outreach, and speaking engagements.

As with all communications, the key to effective thought leadership is quality over quantity. Whether digital or in person, all efforts should be timely, relevant, authentic, and most importantly, framed through a unique point of view. If you are not contributing an exclusive angle, it’s not truly thought leadership.

Driving positive change

Good sustainability thought leaders introduce new ideas, but great ones change the world. Get inspired by these leaders who have advanced the sustainability agenda through transformational thought leadership.

Luminary: Paul Polman, Unilever

As the former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman embedded sustainability within the multibillion-dollar corporation while pushing for other companies in the consumer goods sector to do the same. Before retiring earlier this year, Polman shifted the entire industry by proving that “we cannot choose between growth and sustainability — we must have both.”

Activist: Rose Mercario, Patagonia

Recognized as one of Business Insider’s 100 People Transforming Business, Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario doesn’t just make bold political statements, she takes action. From having Patagonia sue the current administration to launching the nonpartisan Time to Vote initiative, Marcario believes that “business has to pick up the mantle when the government fails.”

Trailblazer: Hamdi Ulukaya, Chobani

Unlike most CEOs, Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya doesn’t focus on maximizing profits for shareholders. Instead, he leverages his business to lift up communities, making personal sacrifices to “stand shoulder to shoulder with employees.” Ulukaya gives his employees a financial stake in the company and employs 30 percent immigrants. In doing so, he inspires “a new way of business, a new way of working, a new way of innovation.”

Disruptors: Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, Method

Method co-founders Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry disrupted an entire industry by creating environmentally friendly home cleaning products that catapulted the company into a multimillion-dollar brand. By sharing their secrets to success in the The Method Method, the co-founders inspired other companies to embrace a disruptive mindset. While this level of transparency seems risky, Ryan has stated that “if you give away your ideas, it forces you to go out and get new ones.”

Maverick: Elon Musk, Tesla

Charismatic and occasionally controversial, Tesla’s founder and CEO is driven by the goal of “advancing humanity and consequently changing the world.” From making electric vehicles sexy to pioneering the possibility of life on Mars, Musk seeks solutions to our world’s most pressing issues while proving that no idea is too big.

Sustainability thought leaders walk the talk

Thought leadership is more than just words. When done right, thought leadership challenges your brand to think ahead, continuously innovate and embed sustainability in all that you do. But no matter which approach you take on your thought leadership journey, your words must be rooted in genuine intent that leads to action. This is what puts the “leader” in thought leadership.