Sustainability and Storytelling

To date, sustainability has been poorly connected to the storytelling by companies around product and corporate mythology. The general corporate approach to date is captured in the following vignette. 

Set at a forward-thinking company 5 years ago. 
The Chief Marketing Officer walks into the office of the Chief Financial Officer. The office is somewhat drab and cluttered. The desk is stacked with dead trees of printed spreadsheets.
CMO: CFO, our customers and employees are demanding more from us. You won’t believe it, but they’re holding us to standards for social responsibility and sustainability. I know, nutty, right? Anywho, I need your help to do sustainable stuff. Cool?
CFO: You know, CMO, from my perspective your craft lacks grounding in math and beguiles me, but I respect our need to do this. I’m on it. I’ll endeavor to make sensible investments.
CMO: We are one, my friend. 
Fast forward to one year later. The Chief Financial Officer walks into the office of the Chief Marketing Officer. The office is colorful and spartan. Sleek. The room has an air of modernity.
CFO: Mission accomplished. You’ll be happy. We installed solar panels on the roof. We implemented energy efficiency upgrades in our buildings. We did a power purchase agreement sourced from wind turbines for the remainder of our power. We required our suppliers to make changes to keep our business. We are net zero.
CMO: Whoa. That’s fantastic! We are indeed one, my friend. 
The room is filled with high fives and hugs. It is a scene of sunglasses and autographs. The CMO runs from the room and looks back.
CMO: I’ve got a press release to write!
Days later, the press release hits the wire. The company is energized by their commitment to social responsibility. Over the next 3 days, partners and friends lob in calls and emails to congratulate folks across the company.
One week later, no one remembers the press release. They’ve moved on to the next thing. Unfortunately, the investments are all invisible. Employees, partners and customers forget the important investment made by the company.

It’s a sad story. Not Titanic sad, but sad nonetheless. 

A couple interesting observations emerge from the vignette.

  • A press release is not an effective strategy for sustainability marketing. 
  • Most investments in sustainability are invisible and lack an ability to engage employees, customers and partners. 

What the combination says to me is that effective sustainability strategy requires integration directly into the fabric of corporate storytelling, across the board.

That means that corporate commitment to social responsibility needs to be visible and pervasive. Physically and across messaging. Marketing products and corporate ethos need to embed sustainability natively and organically into the storytelling.

Some key questions that serve as guideposts for understanding this point:

  • Does the company name convey responsibility directly, or has it become synonymous with sustainability?
  • When an employee, partner or customer pulls into the parking lot for the corporate campus or a retail location, does he / she immediately understand the company’s commitment?
  • Does the product marketing underscore sustainability as a key and differentiating product feature?
  • Does product packaging convey brand commitment to sustainability and generate subliminal association with the product?
  • Do marketing channels employ organic and native means to convey brand commitment to sustainability and generate subliminal association?
  • Does the corporate story involve either a genesis in sustainability or a cathartic epiphany when the entity “got religion”?
  • Does your company partner directly and visibly with communities in innovative ways that affirm commitments and cement broad understanding?
  • Do corporate policies and the employee handbook establish social responsibility norms in a way that pervades the corporate ethos?
  • Are employees, partners and customers empowered in ways to become viral marketing vehicles for sustainability and the company?

There are a number of companies who are ahead of the curve on these fronts. 

The Honest Company, where it is even reflected in the name. Walmart, who leads in solar panel installations and where employees are held to sustainability standards in all aspects of the business from sourcing to supply chain and retail. Tesla, that was born out of a fundamental mission to reduce CO2 emissions. Interface, who underwent a corporate catharsis and fundamental transformation on approach. Unilever, where the entire company’s ethos is now built around a commitment.

There are fantastic examples of companies who are doing remarkable work. But that work is a journey, not a destination and the sharp focus needs to continue to ensure sustainability pervades operations, and importantly, the marketing and storytelling.