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Product, Service & Design Innovation
'Soft Sustainability':
How Brands Are Successfully Communicating Their Efforts by Steering Clear of the 'S' Word

Back in the late 1980s, Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to describe the US’s ability to influence the world through the marketing power of its global consumer brands and Hollywood’s razzle dazzle rather than the US military’s big stick.

Today, as companies begin to shape a narrative that makes sense to the public, Nye’s language could well be applied to sustainability.

Welcome to the era of Soft Sustainability.

The term could be used to describe the approach of some of the world’s biggest companies as they seek to communicate their own sustainability work while also providing their consumers and greater community a roadmap to sustainable living.

Based on the findings of Sustainly’s 5th Annual Social Media Sustainability Index, this year’s top brands are successfully connecting with the masses in an entertaining, informative and authentic voice on the issues they are passionate about. Simple things — like food that won’t hurt you. Products free from poisons and carcinogens. Paying workers a decent wage. And not harming local habitats or communities.

Sustainly's Matthew Yeomans,
speaker at
Sustainable Brands 2015
San Diego
The top companies on this year’s Index — Unilever, Intel, Coca-Cola, Philips and McDonald’s — all successfully communicate what practitioners recognize as sustainability without, for the most part, ever ushering the ‘S’ word.

Instead, the companies that make up the Sustainly Top 100 communicate on tricky topics including transparent supply chains, minimizing waste, resource scarcity and diversity in the workplace through narratives about innovation, digital literacy, artisanal production and wellness to name just some of the themes we’ve identified.

Unilever, the top-ranked company on this year’s Index, has invested heavily in both brand and corporate communication around consumer sustainability issues. Its Project Sunlight pan-brand marketing initiative embodies an approach that attempts to demystify sustainability for the public by talking about it in terms of better quality products and a better quality of life.

Unilever’s everyman approach to sustainability communications is echoed by the likes of Coca-Cola, Intel, McDonald’s, Verizon, Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser. All are dealing with thorny sustainability issues such as food sourcing, recycling, female self-image and disease by employing storytelling techniques that don’t put the public to sleep.

Then there’s Innovation — one of the buzzwords of this digital age and fast becoming a code word for companies who want to make sustainability sexy. No less than 20 different companies in 2014 ran innovation campaigns or challenges that had strong sustainability themes built in, whether it be more efficient ways of travel, ideas for safer and more environmentally friendly working conditions or smarter city living. Philips even undertook an entire brand makeover around the theme Innovation and You.

Whether it’s innovation, educational coding for kids or helping save money and lives through healthier lifestyles, it’s clear that many companies have realized that the best way to promote sustainability is to show its effectiveness and usefulness for real people rather than preach about why sustainability matters.

The era of Soft Sustainability has begun.


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