No matter how often it happens, when a new idea or insight opens up entirely new pathways and possibilities in our minds, there’s always a sense of exhilaration. For me, this kind of realisation — that sustainability thinking can and should transform business for the better — was the catalyst behind my own move into corporate sustainability.
But it’s one thing to understand an opportunity and another to make it happen. Despite the progress that’s been made in getting companies to buy into and embrace the idea of sustainability, the path to unleashing its transformative power is at risk of stalling. It feels like we’ve reached a plateau and the whole industry needs a kind of ‘a-ha moment’ to get things going again. I believe communications thinking holds the key to working this out.
Author Joshua Foer talks about the “OK plateau,” a useful clue for understanding this leveling-off in progress. This means we only become as competent as needed to perform a task at an acceptable level before passing it over to a more automated corner of the mind – we don't always keep improving as we go.
There’s a risk that sustainability will get lodged in its own “OK plateau.” It happens in a company when there's a plan in place, good practice is being met and it's pretty unlikely anyone will be beating an angry path to your door, or at least no more readily than others in your market. You only need to look at all the usual reports and corporate communications about sustainability side by side to find a striking parity; I can’t think of many other aspects of business strategy where standing out so little is seen as acceptable.
This likely happens because the immediate or direct value of going further and faster or doing things better is hard to prove. Without an immediate incentive, the bigger, bolder initiatives that could unlock the greatest value — in both sustainability and commercial terms — never get off the ground. It's a vicious circle and progress can easily stall without a strategic leap to take things to the next level.
This leap requires refocusing your approach to sustainability around what drives the business: your customers. Let's call this journey to become more customer-led 'creating a brand vision for sustainability.' It’s a philosophy as much as a process, but what follows are some steps that should help you make sustainability more proactive, creative and brand-branding for your company.
1. Customer insight needs to play a bigger role in every sustainability process.
The status of communications within a sustainability team often seems like an afterthought compared to the 'meatier' work of delivering operational change. I believe this is the primary reason why marketing departments are not receptive to taking sustainability communications into brand conversations. By the time they make it this far along the chain, they are already too abstract and disentangled from what most customers care about or understand. To overcome this, sustainability must make customer engagement one of its key drivers across every process and piece of work, no matter how deep and operational it seems.
Marks and Spencer's 'Plan A' is a perfect example of the challenge. In conversation with young would-be sustainability professionals, M&S is still the most quoted example of a sustainability engagement success story. However, my understanding is that although M&S continues to be one of the most trusted brands in the UK, Plan A specifically still has real difficulty in getting cut-through with customers. It was never written and articulated with customers’ values, hopes, fears and aspirations in mind. The 'Waitrose Way' seems like a step closer to something that the average shopper can identify with; 'Living well' and 'Championing British,' two of the pillars in the plan, are things that people can intuitively believe in and desire for their own reasons.
2. Sustainability must be as much about brand storytelling as any other corporate activity.
As David Jones argues in Who Cares Wins, social media is opening up and exposing companies on all fronts, which increases the need to be open and transparent about corporate behaviour. And as a result, it makes less and less sense to present an entirely different face to different stakeholders.
The more we use sustainability like a brand channel, the more we’ll see sustainability reaching beyond the annual report or quiet corner of the corporate website, and greater tangible value will be created. Talk like the whole world is listening and it might just become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A great example of competing brands with unique stories that permeate everything they do is Nike and Adidas. Nike focuses on the personal drive and commitment required to win that underpins the power of sport to create positive change. Adidas arguably has a stronger story to inspire its own unique approach, which has in recent years been focused on what can be achieved when people work and play together as a team. However very little of this filters through to the spirit or content of how they are tackling sustainability issues. Nike's more direct and aggressive approach seems to be placing them up front in the race to turn sustainability into a brand and business driver.
3. Focus your sustainability narrative around the positive benefit of your products on the lives of your customers.
As a category, the insurance sector struggles to create any kind of positive relationship with customers. Instead it is seen as a necessary safety net, a relationship of last resort. However if you tried to boil down the essence of the sector's primary contribution, it would be to safeguard assets for uncertain times ahead. And then ‘Protecting the future' begins to look like something interesting, something meaningful to customers.
Historically sustainability strategies have been about doing 'less bad.' This is of course a vital place to start but it’s still only half the opportunity. In what other part of life would 'trying to be less bad' be good enough? And what's more, how many people do you know who would tune in excitedly to hear about what their insurance company had to tell them about 'greening their supply chain?' Proactively doing more good opens up many more opportunities for engagement. But it relies on the smart use of communications, to conceive of and create the projects and programmes that deliver on the promise in a way that is useful and 'worth the effort' for customers to get involved in. In my recent experience, the smarter insurance businesses are already starting to think about this more interesting question, i.e. how can we go beyond our day-to-day products and innovate in helping people be safer and more secure in an uncertain world?
At Given, we often talk about all of the above as important considerations in finding your Unique Positive Contribution (UPC) — a reinterpretation of the old marketing maxim that seeks to find the 'unique selling point' of a product. This is a simple vision or story that is differentiated, about 'doing more good' and not just ‘less bad,’ and which contributes something valuable to people, society and the world at large. Viewed collectively, these principles should lead naturally to a brand-led vision for sustainability that can be embedded internally, while also inspiring new and exciting projects and programmes externally. We’ve recently been working with Virgin Media on this challenge: Their story is about seeking to ensure that their stakeholders avoid the risks and realise all the benefits of an increasingly digital world. Part of the story is about ensuring that any negative social and environmental impacts of the digital products and services delivered into people’s homes are minimised as much as possible. But the way that digital technology and the Internet affect all our lives is the area most important to customers.
As businesses become more exposed to the forces of social media, products arguably more homogenous and marketing messages less salient, the real market will be for something to believe in. It will be, as Hugh McCloud states, endless — however, this will only happen if the right people can be convinced and begin to come on board.
When consumer brands say that they are marketing-led, this means that they believe that delivering on customer needs is what drives business success. How ever could sustainability become front and centre to business success without contributing to achieving what matters most? I believe that sustainability can and should take marketing thinking to heart and embrace customers more. The extent to which we are all able to do this is also the extent to which sustainability can make its next big leap forward.