As a part of the panel for “Consumer engagement: Turning negatives into positives and influencing choices” at the Edie Sustainability Leaders Forum in London this week, we led a hands-on workshop around the next challenge for brand leaders. “The new rules: Are your brand communications ready for the age of transparency?” looks at the 5 rules for communicating impact for the new decade.
Today, brand efforts are currently hidden in B2B supply chain tools and sustainability reports. The hard work that some leading businesses are undertaking is not being communicated at the right touch-points with shoppers.
There’s a general fear that any marketing around sustainability will be seen as greenwashing – but we think there’s a way to combat that.
Together, as leaders prioritising sustainability, we must ensure we’re sharing truthful information that’s backed up with proof about the origin, journey and impact of products. In turn, this transparency increases brand loyalty and drives sales from a growing group of people who care about the values of the brands they buy from as well as about their own personal impact on the planet.
In response to this challenge, our team set out some of the basic rules…
1. Start with where you have the most impact, not just where you’ll get headlines
Sidestep the PR wagon of what’s trending, and instead focus on what’s significant to your business. If a hero ingredient is 5% of your impact, but 95% comes from packaging – don’t build a campaign around that one nice ingredient.
That in itself takes discipline to manage; most businesses have been very reactive around hot-button issues such as plastics. You need to be clear and confident in your brand’s long-term mission so that you don’t just get churned about in the storm.
Suppose your brand put all of the energy that has gone into an initiative around “hating on straws” into something that truly sits amongst material impacts. For this, you need to have a common language between the makers and marketers to navigate the space.
Questions to answer: Can you name the top 3 areas of material impact for your product? How confident would you be (1-10)?
Not sure? Talk to sustainability. At least 90% of your product’s impact is in the supply chain (McKinsey, 2018).
2. Connect to your network – there’s no ‘i’ in ‘transparency’!
You’ll never make it alone. To even address rule number one, you’ll need to align the silos of your organisations. Business networks and stakeholder engagement is needed to have a clear look at what’s going on across your supplier network and within your own organisation – but this benefits everyone.
Connecting the dots here – from supplier access and certifiers to partnerships and NGOs – yields greater trust, longer contracts and less risk of scandal.
Finally, there’s no ‘i’ in transparency, but there is ‘y’ – so ensure you bake in your purpose here and let everyone know you’re all playing on the same team and serving the same ultimate goal: a more positive impact on people and planet (or your own core vision).
Questions to answer: Who are your key suppliers? Do you know their suppliers?
Not sure? Talk to procurement. Only 6% of companies report full supply chain visibility (GEODIS, 2017).
3. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Perfection does not exist.
Furthermore, shoppers will trust you more if you share both the successes and the struggles. Take people on a journey and you’ll be surprised at the help, positivity and brand building this will achieve. This also pays dividends when it comes to employee engagement, as a more purposeful mission increases engagement from across the company.
A concern that clients often raise with us is; if we say one particular thing is good, won’t people question how well we’re doing on the other things?
From our experience and what we see time again from truly honest brands and not those on a greenwashing campaign – people appreciate the progress and reward that honesty. Look at brands like Patagonia, Veja, Victoria Beckham, All Birds, Asket, Oatly – see how they’re telling the story through the problems and the progress.
Questions to answer: What key information could you share with your customers about where you are today?
Not sure? Talk to marketing. Nearly half of Gen Zs & Millennials would trust a brand more if they were being honest, even about problems (Futerra, 2019).
4. Be bold in ambition, but humble in achievements.
Commit to more than you’ve done before and continue to raise the bar for your entire industry. That said, don’t shout about things that should be the baseline.
For example, beauty brands shouldn’t be making a mountain out of being “cruelty-free” – this is the minimum standard shoppers expect. You should definitely be doing the things that people already hope you’re doing.
But progress is vital here, so you’ll need continuous communications around your big goals and how you’re moving towards achieving them.
Questions to answer: What commitments are you making? What progress is being made against them?
Not sure? Talk to your CEO. Some 68% of sustainability leaders say their organisation is more committed to sustainability in 2019 than it was in 2017/18 (Edie, 2019).
5. Prove it. With shoppers digging deeper, you must bring evidence to the things you say.
It’s not enough to just say it. In the era of greenwashing, you’ve got to have proof. Be accountable as a brand by backing everything up with a trail of evidence around your communication claims.
If you’re a buyer in retail or procurement – be more demanding of the products you’re selecting. You deserve more than vague words and promise.
Next, ensure this is made open for your network, stakeholders and, ultimately, shoppers to look at. Set this out in a way clear and not confusing – don’t hide behind complicated charts and reports. It’s about context and proof, not carbon tonnage.
Our transparency framework helps brands navigate their supply-chain information and impact statements. We’ve benchmarked it to international standards and pull through verified information to help you communicate to shoppers with integrity.
Questions to ask: What can you share as proof for each of these areas (current impact, suppliers, progress, future aims)?