Keep the spotlight on the the true hero – 3 tips for telling your sustainability story.


It’s tempting enough for brands to want to talk about themselves – even truer when they are doing something good.

In today’s radically transparent social business marketplace, the reputation of a company extends way beyond its marketing to include its supply chain, manufacturing processes, employee treatment and customer engagement.

Likewise, full circle sustainability requires that companies overhaul how they source their ingredients, manufacture and distribute their products, and manage the waste they generate. Both of these realities place higher demands on time-poor executives and entrepreneurs, yet too many fail to recoup the costs of such efforts because they don’t share their sustainability story effectively.

In fact, almost all companies are guilty of three key mistakes that mean these investments of time, money and energy never build their brand or bottom line.

1. Define a Unique Sustainability Point of View

Ever since social media has empowered consumers to engage with brands, more and more companies have sustainability heroresponded to demands for greater social responsibility. As a result, consumers are bombarded with claims centered on sustainability, “green” and purposeful initiatives by brands. With sustainability rapidly becoming table stakes, however, too many brands are mistaking sustainability itself as their brand purpose.

Instead, they need to examine the broader conversation around sustainability within their industry or product category and define a distinct point of view that is proprietary to their brand. For a large brand like Unilever, ‘this means first creating a brand position—Sustainable Living—then pointing their various product brands in that one direction through initiatives like Project Sunlight.

In contrast, fashion brand Zara, a newcomer to the Interbrand Top 50 Global Green brands, committed itself to become the “eco-friendly store” through a variety of energy, environmental safety and transparent policies.

2. Make the Customer the Hero of Your Story

When companies absorb the hard costs of being a sustainability leader, it is tempting to want to tell the story of these investments.

Yet, these efforts only become meaningful to a consumer when they are communicated in ways that are relevant to their lives. By highlighting the differences the brand’s efforts have made to individuals, communities or the environment, a company can inspire employees and consumers to become advocates for the brand because they are positioned as an important Coca-Cola-#5by20part of the conversation.

In the absence of this, many companies are left wondering why costly marketing around even more costly sustainability commitments fail to build awareness, engagement or goodwill. Coca-Cola’s#5by20 initiative empowering five million women entrepreneurs and their Colectivo initiative in Latin America are great examples of how celebrating the impact on individual lives demonstrates a brand’s commitment.

3. Earn Permission to Support Consumer Efforts

It’s tempting enough for brands to want to talk about themselves – even truer when they are doing something good.

The reality, however, is that media-savvy and well-informed consumers deeply understand the need for a more sustainable way of living and are increasingly taking power into their own hands to support responsible brands and punish those that are not.

As such, the posture of a brand when engaging consumers around their sustainability efforts must be one of servant leadership with a commitment to real and measurable social impact rather than self-promotion. To do this effectively, a brand must identify the right audiences and start by listening to their goals and concerns. Only then can a brand position itself in service of common goals based on shared values and expect community sustainability professionals listeningengagement and support.

Too often the opposite is the case, with brands presuming that consumers will rush to support or celebrate their sustainability efforts simply because they are doing good. Unilever’s product brands provide several good examples of the right approach including their Lifebuoy storytelling and their multiple-tiered partnerships around Global Handwashing Day.

Join We First at its 2014 Brand Leadership Summit on Oct 7-8 at the SLS Hotel in Los Angeles to learn from global marketers at Unilever, Coca-Cola and Facebook about how to tell your sustainability story and leave with a 2015 Social Branding Blueprint specific to your brand. Visit now and enter promo code CSRWIRE to save $500 on early bird pricing that ends June 15th. Plus every registration comes with a free ticket for you to invite your favorite non-profit.

This article was originally published on CSRwire
Simon Mainwaring
is a New York Times bestselling author of We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World and an award-winning branding consultant to companies like Nike, Toyota and Motorola, and social media contributor to Forbes, Mashable and Fast Company.  You can follow Simon on twitter at @simonmainwaring