How To Effectively Tell Your Brand's Sustainability/ESG Story
How well do you tell the story of your commitment to sustainability/ESG? This is the defining question for 2020 — not just for your business, but every business.
Why Is Sustainability/ESG A Critical Issue?
Sustainability/ESG is one of the defining issues of our time. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have roughly 12 years to put global warming in check, or else we’ll face a catastrophic outcome. As author and consultant Andrew Winston wrote in Harvard Business Review, “To avoid some of the most devastating impacts of climate change, the world must slash carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and completely decarbonize by 2050 (while, in the meantime, emissions are still rising).” In addition, the U.S. National Climate Assessment says climate change could erase as much as 10% off of the U.S. GDP.
Sustainability/ESG is not just tomorrow’s problem. It’s a here-and-now issue.
How Are Businesses Responding?
To be sure, businesses are responding: 90% of executives believe sustainability is important, and 60% actually have a sustainability strategy, according to an MITSloan report. But executives also need something else: an approach for communicating their sustainability strategy.
Currently, American businesses are not required to report their sustainability commitment. The field is wide open for sustainability reporting. There are no real standards and agreed-upon best practices, just a hodge-podge of approaches. Businesses need guidance. They need to teach each other how to build awareness and interest in sustainability — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the sensible thing to do.
My company works with businesses all the time to develop communication strategies that build awareness for their sustainability programs. For example, one of our clients wanted to let its many stakeholders know about its innovative approach to sustainable mining. We helped the client turn its website into a visually appealing showcase that tells the story of sustainability, resulting in a 26% increase in returning visitors and an increase in visit duration. To tell your story, you need to attract people to your own digital real estate.
If you want to make sustainability/ESG the center of your marketing and communications efforts, too, here's what you'll need:
A strategy for how you’ll share your story: Define a comprehensive approach for sharing your story — ranging from the messaging that will express itself through your mission, to your programs for practicing what you preach, through to your own people. This process need not be complicated. It starts with identifying your brand values (beyond sustainability/ESG) and constructing a messaging platform that reflects those values so that your strategy feels right for your company, as opposed to seeming like a left turn.
A clear sustainability/ESG mission statement: Create a mission statement for sustainability/ESG that articulates your commitment. Patagonia has aligned its entire corporate mission with sustainability, which might be a bit extreme for other businesses.
Ambitious goals for delivering on your sustainability/ESG agenda: Goals hold you and other businesses accountable. For example, Amazon articulated an ambitious goal of meeting the stipulations of the Paris Accord a decade early by "committing to net zero carbon emissions by the year 2040."
A dedicated part of your website: Make it easy for investors, employees and customers to understand what exactly your company is doing to be sustainable in your actions. You need a home base to tell your story — a platform brimming with success stories, employee testimonials and other content. And it needs to be engaging, relying on multimedia to captivate your audience.
A consistent narrative: This should be told across channels beyond your website — on every touch point where investors, employees and shareholders encounter your brand, ranging from your socials to third-party sites where your brand is represented.
A vigorous PR program: Share your progress all-year-round to news media who shape public perception. If you don’t tell your story, how will other companies understand what they need to do to get on board? If ever there is a reason to get the word out about your company, sustainability/ESG is it. Choose publications that your clients and competitors read. Most major mainstream business publications are now covering sustainability/ESG regularly and do roundup pieces on the most sustainable businesses. You should be writing about it and getting quoted on the topic, too.
A committed CEO: The commitment needs to come from the top. You need a CEO who will own this topic and be the face and voice of your brand.
Strong content marketing: Sustainability/ESG is exploding in the news each day. Content marketing ensures that you’re staying on top of emerging issues and have a viewpoint on them. Your customers, employees and investors will look to you for your views, too.
A partnership program: Few businesses can go it alone anymore when they tell their sustainability stories. Find other businesses and tell your story together. Consider the role that consortia can play in amplifying your story or industry associations that advocate for sustainability/ESG activities.
Employee outreach: Get your people involved in acting in a sustainable fashion. Sustainability/ESG needs to grow from within your company for your story to be authentic. Your people need to believe and live those values. If they are not involved in living the message, then how credible will your story be? One of the best ways for employees to get involved is for them to own the experience. Empower employees to create their own sustainability/ESG campaigns at their local offices, and share their successes with each other. A bottom-up, decentralized approach can be especially powerful.
As you develop your plans and budgets for 2020, what are you doing to elevate your story about sustainability/ESG? The entire world is listening.