As brands start to realize that considering sustainability is no longer optional, many will be tempted to employ a traditional control-and-command approach to communications around their practices and issues.
The experts on this panel Tuesday morning explained why it's a good idea to do just the opposite, and involve consumers (and other stakeholders) in the strategic conversation.
This discussion began with moderator Phillip Haid making a commitment to go old-school; no PowerPoint slides, no video ... Just people talking, and listening – a fitting way to engage in a discussion about brand transparency.
With a tagline like "Real food that matters for life's moments," transparency at the Campbell Soup Company is evolving to become part of the culture. Dave Stangis shared some of the corporate nervousness around launching whatsinmyfood.com, as he reinforced the brand's commitment to its principles.
Mark DeVito from Gigawatt agreed, pointing out that it's not always an easy step when engaging on strategy and communications with clients.
"We work with a lot of large companies who make claims, and when we need to know more, sometimes that can feel uncomfortable."
As a tech company that creates a platform for an online marketplace, Etsy is in a unique position when it comes to transparency. Devon Leahy told the audience about some of the amazing sellers and craftspeople who share details about their process, environment and manufacturing. But, as she explains, it's more than a feel-good proposition.
"68 percent of buyers on Etsy are interested in finding out more about materials and origin of products," she said. "So we've really tried to build in the tools for them to do that."
Questions from our expert audience took the transparency discussion even further.
How can you convince leadership to take the leap with transparency and assume the risk that you might not be perfect?
DeVito said the business case for transparency is strong. "Transparency is more money. It almost unilaterally leads to success."
The group agreed that investors are asking about things such as water use and GMOs, but they are more concerned that brands not drop the ball.
"There has always been value in any brand that's not in the financials," Stangis added. "But you don't know exactly what that's worth until it goes wrong - and your stock price falls."
How do you look forward, past the latest issue that's being driven by the consumer?
Stangis talked candidly about Campbell's decision to identify GMOs in its products. Driven in part by the Vermont GMO labeling law, it's an issue that responds to both upcoming legislation and growing consumer interest. But, he added, it's important to be positive: "We want be on the side of what we're for, not what were against."
How are brands using social media as part of transparency?
The main thing that's happened, the panel agreed, is that communication is now two-way, and conversations are taking place on platforms that are not corporate-led. If brands show up in channels created by people who care deeply, and start to engage with consumers there, it will pay off.
But, DeVito points out, the corporate website is not dead.
"The brand website is still a central point. We just need to find a way to make these big corporate sites simpler, more interactive and more compelling."
How important is the credible sustainability report in the world of storytelling?
Leahy said with technology leading people to communicate in short snippets, most consumers aren't paying attention to thick data-driven reports from a purpose perspective. So Etsy is moving away from sustainability reports as a storytelling mechanism, preferring to hold up great examples of what innovative sellers are doing.
But for a legacy brand such as Campbell's, sustainability reports are critical for authenticity and credibility, holding people accountable.
"It is the CSR encyclopedia for the company," Stangis said, "where you can find all the purpose transparency stories in one place."
If there was one central theme to the conversation, it's that transparency can be a new driver of brand purpose.
"Consumers are smart, they're fickle," DeVito said. "Companies need to respect the consumer as much as the work their brands are doing."
But it is a continual journey.
"For every one thing you want to take credit for," Stangis says. "There are nine other things you'll want to fix."