Recently, Google polled 3,000 Americans to find out how they responded to sustainability messaging. As more brands make efforts to become more sustainable or even start any sort of purpose-driven communications, these four tips will help you communicate purpose-driven messaging effectively.
Today’s consumers are smarter about messaging. Millennials, the first digitally native generation, are grown-ups, and have their own kids. Gen X (now called Zoomers), see right through greenwashing. They can smell inauthenticity and they actively bristle at brands leveraging purpose-driven messaging to improve their own reputations. And they are right to be skeptical. According to a Google study global survey of top-level executives 59% admitted to overstating — or inaccurately representing — their sustainability activities. Whoa. That’s not a trust-first strategy at all.
So how can well-meaning brands celebrate purpose-driven messaging like sustainability, and awareness days like Earth Day, without alienating their customers?
Communicate Sustainable Efforts with Plain Language
Purpose-driven messaging is nuanced, but sustainability messaging is quite difficult because sometimes an effort to be sustainable has unintended, non-sustainable results. Yet, it’s important to be clear and honest when discussing your company’s efforts.
One way to do this is to share your sustainability goals and roadmap and be candid about your yearly progress. An annual purpose-driven progress report that is open and available on your website allows your customers to come on the journey with you. And explaining how to you took action and the implications helps consumers understand the complications.
Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, I had a client who created disposable compostable plates and utensils. Before we could even get into messaging, I had to take a mini science lesson because compostable can be problematic due to chemicals used to breakdown items like this, yet using products like this is still better than using plastic that ends up in the landfill, right?
Everyone agreed that anything misleading would destroy trust. We landed on a simple outcome everyone can understand: less plastic is better. And this was a fantastic choice because everyone can clearly understand that we have a plastic problem, and it creates an awareness of a bigger issue that the brand is trying to tackle. Today if I had that client, we would dig deeper and be even more transparent, but this was 2009, and we were barely scratching the surface of how complicated “sustainable” really is to achieve.
Simple is better. Honest is better. Transparent is better.
Celebrate The Accessible
What creates change? From a sustainable messaging standpoint, we’re past awareness. In 2009, Harvard Business Review study found cost is one key reason people don’t adopt sustainable practices. Things like EVs and solar panels are financially inaccessible, to say nothing of the fact that the nations 44 million renters can’t do either of these things.
But what is one thing everyone can do? Reuse. That’s something to celebrate, and it’s accessible to millions of people. Folgers recently did a commercial about reusing its glass jars; I like this because I think it’s on-point to their consumer. The ad incorporated a touch of nostalgia which was effective too. On the flip side, in a recent AdAge podcast, some creatives slightly skewered the video by asking, “What about the plastic lid?” which I think misses the point. The point is: when you remind your customers of the accessible ways they can make a difference, it empowers them.
Focus on small, actionable, concrete actions that you can celebrate alongside your customers.
Dire Threats Aren’t Effective
“When asked to describe “actions or attitudes that could make people feel bad about their impact on the environment,” many U.S. survey respondents pointed to images of landscapes ruined by trash, fires, or pollution, while some pointed to images of animal suffering.”
Not only does messaging like this put the consumer in a terrible position, it’s disempowering. This kind of messaging is increasingly ineffective because consumers have had it with feeling bad about a gigantic problem that they, as an individual, can’t personally solve alone. And why is the burden even on the consumer all the time anyway? What is the business doing internally?
Instead, focus on positive outcomes. Before and after pictures of rooftop gardens, clean parks, these are all uplifting images that send a positive, impactful message.
Use Educated Consumers to Your Advantage
Sustainability has become political. It’s that simple. For example, according to Harvard Business Review:
“Republicans were less likely to buy a compact fluorescent light bulb that they knew was more energy-efficient than an incandescent bulb when it was labeled “Protect the Environment” than when that label was missing.”
Most consumers who want a sustainable bulb know incandescent bulbs are more sustainable. But instead of pointing to the environmental benefits, labeling incandescent bulbs as more energy efficient is effective for a wider range of consumers. Everyone can see the benefits of saving energy, whether for sustainability or economic benefit.
Without a plan and consideration for the pitfalls, purpose-driven communication can do more damage than good. For more recommendations, download our Purpose-Driven Guide, which provides an internal roadmap to avoiding the typical challenges of communicating purpose-driven messages.