Finding a Sustainable Why: From Agency to Client and Back Again

by Sep 21, 2017

I’ve had the great fortune to have experienced both the agency and client sides of marketing and communications over the past 30 years. On the agency side, I’ve engaged with many different kinds of clients. As we work together to discover, articulate and communicate an organization’s particular competitive advantage, I always find myself looking for its “why” – beyond selling products or services.

What is this organization’s purpose? Its vision? Its mission? Not just what’s hanging on a wall in the break room or published in an annual report, but a consistent and clear understanding, both internally and externally, of what its employees are all there to do, and why it all matters beyond a transactional exchange.

Why find the “why”?

When a company knows its “why,” there’s a straighter path to discover or reveal its brand positioning and tell its story … even if it hasn’t been clearly articulated before. And for the organization with already-established brand positioning, the evolution and activation of its brand becomes more natural and organic when guided by a “true north.”

In my three roles on the client side, I’ve had the chance to experience directly what it’s like to be part of …

  • A company that had been around a long time, but never really thought about its brand positioning before
  • A start-up, mission-driven non-profit connected to an established and beloved brand
  • A global Fortune 500 corporation with a powerful 75+ year brand history and a strong sense of purpose

In each case, the “why” was different, and I learned and navigated the complexity of building consensus, developing common language, and aligning messaging internally and externally … within and among departments and divisions, and across channels of distribution, customers and continents. In every case, the “why” was authentic, with true commitments and actions that backed up the claims.

You know the “why” … what’s next?

Since you’re reading this blog post, you likely already recognize the importance of having a sustainability commitment and a story to tell. In fact, you may be the one who drove that commitment at your company. The next step is to figure out how to connect that sustainability commitment to your organization’s product, service and brand stories.

In my experience, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some internally will be very married to the existing brand story – they won’t want to update it. Some won’t see the value. They’ll see sustainability as a trend or a fad, as opposed to a “why.” And still others will want to leverage sustainability, but they may overpromise and wind up greenwashing vs. telling a heart-felt, meaningful, authentic story.

Here’s my advice, having worked both sides of the aisle:

  • Look for sustainability champions. When you host sustainability forums or post stories on the company intranet, for example, who are the people who are always commenting or participating? What role do they play in the company, and how can they help advance the cause?
  • Figure out where to connect, whether that’s corporate communications (brand positioning), HR (recruitment and retention) or with your business units (product marketing). One or another may be a more natural connection, and they may see the benefits and join your group of sustainability champions.
  • Understand who cares externally, and why. Think about the role sustainability plays in attracting and retaining talent. Look at your existing voice of customer or other research to uncover potential connections between the impact and outcomes of your sustainability commitments and the product or service benefits you’re able to deliver. These will form the core of your story for those audiences.

Ultimately, seek opportunities within your organization to actively leverage your sustainability commitments in ways that are meaningful and relevant to both internal and external audiences. Then you’ll have a sustainable story to tell.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Jill kouri

    Great post, Laila. We should talk further!

  2. Laila Waggoner

    Thanks, Jill! Would love to talk more – soon!

  3. James Gregory

    I agree 100% with Laila’s comments. It has been many years since we worked together but I love that you continue to think this way about sustainable brands!

  4. Laila Waggoner

    So great to hear from you, Jim! You were one of my early teachers on the importance of “why.” Would love to reconnect and work together again!

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