For some sustainability purists, communications and marketing are separate from — and in some cases, in opposition to — real, quantifiable progress. But when done well, great stories can excite employees to take action, convince internal leaders to invest their team’s time and resources, rally communities and partners, and help build reputation and business value.
Sustainability progress and storytelling, however, must go hand-in-hand. Your communications must be rooted in substance, focused, and fully integrated in your corporate communications in order to be effective. If you’re looking to achieve all the potential upsides listed above, avoid the common pitfalls below:
1. Insufficient substance
No one aims to greenwash, and yet it’s all too common. Often it’s unintentional; marketing and PR teams might lack the sustainability knowledge to craft a message that is both compelling and accurate. In this case, better oversight from a sustainability expert is key. But the other common instance where this occurs is when a company is early in the process of building substance. They’ve made commitments and are slowly and steadily driving progress, but they don’t want to wait to tell a great story until they’ve achieved their goals. The key is developing a clear strategy for what you can talk about today (including verified proof points), while simultaneously building a stronger story for the future.
We recommend taking a cyclical approach. Today: Find the best claims you can credibly make today, and tell great stories about them. Meanwhile, uncover your biggest opportunities for great storytelling, and build substance. When you approach year 2 - 3+: Make a splash with a big (substantive) brand story. Repeat.
2. Saying what everyone else is saying
Corporate sustainability/ESG strategies are constructed based on the issues that are most material to the business, stakeholders, and the planet. And therefore, most companies in a specific industry focus on similar topics with similar commitments.
But leaders understand that there is another important lens to consider when developing your strategy: differentiation. This means deeply understanding your peers’ sustainability strategy and communications, and asking yourself, is there an opportunity to say something that none of our competitors can? Is there a program, commitment, achievement, or action we are taking that we can be known for? When companies fail to ask these questions they miss the opportunity to build reputation and momentum around their sustainability progress.
3. Trying to say too much
Companies today must drive progress on a host of important issues. This is great news. However, if you attempt to communicate about everything, you’ll miss the opportunity to be known for something. Rather than storytelling about all your material topics, find the 1-3 areas where your company 1. Is making the biggest impact, 2. Can differentiate itself from peers, and 3. Is doing something your customers and/or employees really care about. Focus the majority of your storytelling here.
4. Making broad, sweeping statements
“We’re making the world a better place,” “We’re making a positive impact,” “We’re supporting people and communities” are vague to the point of being meaningless. Your headlines and messages should be as specific as possible. Use accomplishments, commitments, or unique programs/actions to say something meaningful.
For example, rather that leading an email campaign with “We’re committed to DE&I” consider, “We aim to be the most diverse software company in America,” or “We’re building a more inclusive manufacturing culture,” or “Advancing minority and female leadership.” Specificity not only helps you cut through the noise, but it also provides the most impactful takeaways for readers who are merely skimming your communications.
5. Lack of brand integration
The easiest way to lose trust with customers is to say one thing through one channel and something else through another. If a customer sees an ad or reads a story about your sustainability accolades, then visits your website and there is nothing mentioned about it on the company’s Homepage or About Us page, they will interpret that as a lack of true commitment to sustainability. If you’re going to communicate about sustainability or positive impact at all, you must do so completely, integrating it into your brand in all channels.
Need help figuring out how to tell a better story? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.