The five corporate excuses for not promoting sustainability and how to fight them

The five corporate excuses for not promoting sustainability and how to fight them

It takes an in-depth, cross-functional effort to align a company’s culture, markets and brands.

Last week at the Sustainable Brands Conference, Tensie Whelan, president of the Rainforest Alliance, drew many nods of recognition by listing the following common excuses big companies have for not promoting their sustainability efforts:

  1. Consumers aren’t asking for it.
  2. When we give it to them, they don’t want it.
  3. Sustainability is boring/expensive/sub-quality/complicated.
  4. We might lose market share.
  5. We need to communicate our core attributes.

At Shelton Group, we know a sustainability message can be extremely powerful and leverage-able for both companies and brands when that message is in alignment with the following:

  1. Market care-abouts
  2. Brand values
  3. Internal corporate culture

We actually find it’s pretty easy to figure out what the market wants (after all, we poll the market regularly), and it’s easy to figure out what the brand stands for (most companies have spent a lot of time and money developing elegant brand architectures and standards manuals).

The hardest piece of the equation is the internal culture, and that’s really what Tensie was talking about.

It’s easy to give excuses when things are working pretty well as they are. If you’re a brand manager and your existing messaging platform, brand attributes and features and benefits are delivering the market share you’re after, why rock the boat? Why try something new and unproven?

What all those excuses above really boil down to is one big, but very real, excuse: “I’m scared.”

As human beings, we’re all a little afraid of the unknown. And when there are millions, if not billions, of dollars on the line, it’s human nature to want to play it safe.

I would posit that sustainability is safe – and leverage-able. We’ve written here before that the Most Desirable Consumer – the person who shops most often, is most brand loyal and pays more for brands she trusts – is also the greenest leaning. So an authentic, well-told sustainability story can result in more engagement with – and more sales to – that group.

But those are simply words. If you want to get your internal culture on board and comfortable with telling a sustainability story, give people an experience of it:

  • Form a  cross-functional team of people from all over the organization to work together for six to 12 months. (It actually takes this long for people to get past their previously held beliefs about sustainability and get on board.)
  • Get that team in agreement about the first two pieces of the equation – market care-abouts and brand values. This may mean doing some new research, and that would actually be great. If you can do qualitative work, you can get your biggest internal skeptics to come with you to focus groups or shop-alongs and hear straight from consumers what matters. Odds are the consumers you talk with will never say the word “sustainability,” but they will talk about wanting to keep their families safe and comfortable, a desire to buy from companies doing something good in the world, or their worries about finances and trying to manage everything coming at them. Your sustainability story is the solution to what those consumers are worried about.
  • Once everyone is agreed on how the sustainability story can align with market care-abouts and brand values, then begin to imagine what the resistance will be internally. Brainstorm communications platforms and internal marketing strategies and tactics to overcome them and speak to what the internal culture cares about. For instance, if you have a lot of engineers in your company, don’t ask them to join something called a “Green Team.” Ask them to join an “ROI Team,” and talk about sustainability internally as a way to reduce costs and increase market value.

In her Sustainable Brands presentation, Tensie stressed the importance of humor, authenticity and engagement in sustainability messaging. We totally agree.

Sustainability is an emotional play, even if you’re trying to appeal to people who see themselves as very rational thinkers.

In Tensie’s words, “Don’t talk about ‘sustainability’ or ‘green.’ Instead, get to the underlying values of your brand. Consumers want to see trustworthiness, authenticity and a story they can engage in.”

The same is true for your company’s employees.


Posted on

June 18, 2013

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.

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