Selling Sustainability

Posted on June 24, 2010 by Comments Off

Today’s corporate communicators are facing an unusual challenge: how do you inspire consumers and investors to care as much about sustainability as your CEO does? Bombarded by the barrage of heartbreaking coverage of the results of BP’s negligence in the Gulf, this question may strike you as ironic. But, in a UN Global Compact/Accenture survey released this week of 766 of the world’s leading CEOs, 81% said that sustainability issues had become part of their company’s strategy and operations, up from 50% just three years ago. This marks a turn away from greenwashing and toward sustainable capitalism.

You might conclude this turn has been brought about by pressure from investors or consumers. Certainly, there has been increasing interest from both groups, but seemingly not to a degree that keeps pace with CEOs’ willingness to invest. In the same survey, fewer than 50% of the executives surveyed indicated that sustainability informs their discussions with financial analysts. Globally, 60% of all consumers think it is important to buy green – and that number is 90% in developing worlds. But, according to the 2010 Green Brands Survey, when it comes to deciding which product to pick off the shelf, price remains king, particularly in the U.S.

Reworking a supply chain is neither free nor easy, so how can communicators help create short-term payoffs for a corporation’s long-term investment in sustainability? Forget about your CEO, and make it about your consumer. You must do the research to identify what triggers your target audience (“in me”, “on me”, and “around me”), design your message to pull those triggers, and then deliver your message through the channels that they are already following. Cause marketing and effective use of social media allow you to take this one step further by engaging your audience in a way that creates a valuable feedback loop with your customers—feedback you can use to inform your decision-making.

Some might debate whether selling a 20 year-old her third phone in two years or adding a 7th pair of jeans to her drawer maps to big-picture sustainable values. But that’s for a different blog post. What we DO know is, if your company wants to sell her a “greener” phone or pair of jeans, you are unlikely to find her reading that great profile of your program on the business pages.

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