Why you should tell your business’ sustainability story.

1 Sep 2015

Fiona Stephenson, National Communications Manager at the Sustainable Business Network, explains how businesses can build brand loyalty by effectively telling their sustainability stories.

Once upon a time there was a progressive company that looked after its employees, sourced from sustainable suppliers, was as efficient as possible and its products enhanced consumer wellbeing. But its promotional messages didn’t gel with consumers. Sales stagnated and the company failed to thrive. The end.

Simplistic, yes, but this story is played out in real life all too often. It illustrates a growing opportunity for the savvy business: the need to engage with your consumers through telling your sustainability story in a compelling way if you want your business to flourish. Let’s take a look at a couple of companies that have done this very effectively.

Inglorious fruit and vegetables

French supermarket chain Intermarché told the story of ‘Inglorious fruits and vegetables’, humanising the misshapen produce that often went to waste and selling it at a 30 per cent discount.  Posters were created for supermarket aisles, starring the ‘grotesque apple’, ‘ridiculous potato’, ‘hideous orange’, ‘failed lemon’, ‘disfigured eggplant’, ‘ugly carrot’ and ‘unfortunate clementine’. By giving character to the fruits and vegetables and through humorous and relevant messaging, the innovative campaign struck a chord with shoppers: all stocks sold out in two days and supermarket traffic increased by 24 per cent.

Chipotle’s Scarecrow

Chipotle, the Mexican fast food chain from the US, told its story through a video, ‘The Scarecrow’, with the customer-focused message ‘Cultivate a better world’, emphasising the importance of good food grown locally. Less than a week after its release in 2013 the video had received more than 3 million views, mainly through social media shares. Although some questioned the extent of Chipotle’s commitment to sustainability, there’s no doubt the video was effective in raising awareness of the company’s mission to ‘bring real food back to the people’.

The need for businesses to tell their sustainability stories

There’s a growing trend among New Zealand consumers for more sustainable products and services. Ninety per cent of New Zealand consumers say their purchasing behaviour is influenced by sustainability issues, according to Colmar Brunton’s most recent Better Business, Better Futures report (2014), with 62 per cent prepared to pay more to ensure their purchases are sustainable. So it’s surprising that two in three can’t name a leader in sustainability.

There’s evidently a gap between consumer demand and businesses’ ability to resonate with these purchasers of sustainable products and services. For those who manage to bridge this gap, there’s a business opportunity and with Generation Y driving more sustainable behaviour, this opportunity is set to grow.

There are numerous channels through which companies can communicate sustainability, both internally and externally. However, the word that is capturing the imagination is ‘story’.

How to tell your story

Telling stories involves bringing your business to life. It means showing what makes you unique and being relevant to your audiences. Simplicity is key: the challenge is to simplify your message so anyone can understand. Throw acronyms and jargon out the window, including the connotation-laden word ‘sustainability’ if necessary.

Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes says of story-telling, “It’s about how your business (or products) exists in the real world: who you are and what you do for the benefit of others, and how you add value to people’s lives.

“At its heart, a compelling brand story is a kind of gift that gives your audience a way to connect with you as one person to another, and to view your business as what it is: a living breathing entity run by real people offering real value.”

She offers five tips for telling your brand story in an interesting way that relates to your customers:

  1. It’s true
  2. It’s human
  3. It’s original
  4. It serves the customer
  5. It tells a bigger story that’s aligned with your long-term business strategy.

If you’re not sure what your story is, think how you’d like your business to change the world, even if on a small scale. What difference do you make? What problem are you trying to solve? Use empathy to connect with your audience.

Examples of NZ businesses telling stories well

Lewis Road Creamery garnered a 34 per cent market share of the flavoured milk category in New Zealand in just three weeks through a clever PR and social media campaign that focused on great taste and local, simple ingredients, a story that resonated well with customers.

Tommy & James, creator of Nice Blocks and Little Island, tell their story as ‘two mates on a mission to create a better summer treat for our kids’.  Through a focus on natural, organic and Fairtrade ingredients and a simple story they are effectively engaging with consumers.

Trilogy’s story centres on organic rosehip oil and how it inspired the two founders to create a natural skincare range, successfully bridging the gap between what it calls ‘high-science’ synthetic skincare and old-fashioned apothecary-style products.

Internal communications

It’s important to get your team onside too. According to Colmar Brunton 70 per cent of employees want to work for a sustainable company, so make sure everyone in your office hears your good stories. Internal communication is an often over-looked, yet vital, part of business communication.

Chorus has a strong focus on open internal communications with a variety of company-wide initiatives to ensure employees are engaged.  On winning the Aon Hewitt Best of Best Employer 2015 Australia New Zealand Award, CEO Mark Ratcliffe said, “The value of engaged employees is reflected in our business results”.

Learn how to inspire brand loyalty through your business’ sustainability story

Many New Zealand businesses have made great progress integrating sustainability into the core of business models in recent years. Yet, there is still a gap in public awareness of the strides some of these organisations are making.

If you want people to love your brand, effectively telling your sustainability story should be an essential part of your communications strategy. The Project NZ: Telling Good Stories conference at AUT University, Auckland on 3 September, will explore the best in sustainable brands globally and in New Zealand. It will show you how to use your brand as a voice for change and explain how to engage your staff in understanding the business advantages of sustainability.

So let’s change the ending of the fairy story at the start by enabling smart businesses to thrive through telling their authentic sustainability stories. The more of these businesses that can flourish, the better for us all.

Fiona Stephenson

National Communications Manager, Sustainable Business Network

This article first appeared in Idealog.

SBN is working with businesses in four transformation areas.
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