How brands can develop a strong, authentic sustainability narrative

Marketing leaders can move through the fear of reputational damage by defining their purpose and following some key principles

Brands want to embrace sustainability as part of their brand narrative. But one thing is holding them back - fear of communicating their sustainability strategy and the fallout if it doesn’t go as planned, a new report has found.

While organisations are at different stages in communicating their sustainability strategy, initiatives and actions, they nonetheless all share a similar challenge: Uncertainty about how bold to be, according to Sefiani’s Communication that Matters report.   

Sefiani MD, Mandy Galmes, explained commitment to action on climate change is one of the most significant and positive reputational steps any organisation can take, whether it’s government or business.  

“As we have seen play out recently in Australia, leaders with a strong and authentic voice on sustainability in its full meaning are more highly regarded by the community, by industry and their global peers,” said Galmes.  

For marketing leaders, the imperative is to lean into the power of communications. “Their role is to find a way to connect the sustainability story authentically and meaningfully into the broader conversation that's happening in society,” Galmes told CMO.  

Organisations aren’t taking are more proactive and public stance on sustainability, however, because of the risk.  

“Fear of suffering reputational damage after saying the wrong thing, being misinterpreted by stakeholders or being accused of greenwashing,” the report stated. “Fear of how to navigate sustainability risk and opportunity across a complex and evolving backdrop to a multitude of stakeholders. And fear of being able to successfully balance past realities with present demands while creating a credible vision for the future.”  

The report gathered insights from communication leaders, global best-practice case examples and Sefiani’s experiences with sustainability marketing and communication activities. It uncovered three key challenges faced by businesses in developing strong brand stories: Sustainability remains siloed; employees want more say; and leaders need to be courageous.  

Siloes preventing progress on sustainability narratives

Sustainability sits within individual brands or departments inside organisations and this stymies a strong, coherent brand narrative around sustainability, Sefiani’s research found.  

“Few organisations have managed to elevate conversations to an overarching narrative that is meaningful to all stakeholders - from employees, customers, investors and partners to the wider community and government,” the report said.  

Overwhelmingly, employees also want more ways to participate in their workplace sustainability efforts, such as shaping its sustainability strategy, the survey showed. Specifically, staff want more opportunities to take part in their companies’ sustainability conversations and have meaningful roles that support the development and delivery of sustainability initiatives, the report said.  

Leaders need to be courageous

When it comes to the cornerstones of sustainability leadership, almost 80 per cent of interviewees said the number one trait is integrity. Although leaders today are more visible than ever before, fear is again holding organisations and their leaders back from saying anything meaningful or memorable.  

“The leaders that commit to change, stand up, answer the tough questions honestly and inspire stakeholders to come on the sustainability journey will be the ones to stand out,” the report stated  

“Organisations and leaders have been held back by a fear of how much to say, how far to go and how bold to be when it comes to communicating their sustainability commitments,” Galmes commented.  

Developing a strong sustainability narrative  

The report lays out three key opportunities for organisations to embed sustainability authentically into their company narrative.  

1. Finding the brand’sNorth Star

Organisations need to align around their sustainability purpose. This means defining the brand’s sustainability North Star so the company’s purpose, values and sustainability actions will define everything - strategy, products, policies and ultimately, its value proposition.  

2. Tap employees to supercharge sustainability efforts

By doing this, brands can turn employees into sustainability champions. It starts with informing and communicating internally so everyone is engaged and activated in sustainability initiatives. But it needs to go further to empower teams with the ability to shape strategy and be involved in the organisation meeting its commitments.  

3. Communicating the sustainability vision with courage

Now is the moment to establish a strong, reputable leadership position. But leadership needs to embrace both visibility and scrutiny in sharing the brand’s sustainability journey.

Today’s sustainability leaders need to look outward to drive change beyond their own company, while displaying leading with integrity, while having an honest conversation about the challenges and being accountable and selling the vision with strong communications.  

Effective communication is vital to the success of any sustainability strategy, according to Sefiani’s report, which highlighted the importance of brands having an authentic position on sustainability. If brands and marketers are being authentic in the way they communicate about their brand, if it connects back to their purpose, when navigating any challenges or roadblocks they should have enough trust within their consumer base to move through them by being transparent in the way they deal with those issues.  

“That would be our recommendation - make sure that you've looked internally before you go externally, and to be transparent in the way that you respond if there is an issue or crisis,” Galmes advised.  

The goal is to define the brand’s authentic story and start to embed this into the company narrative. Galmes explained that by being transparent, communicating progress honestly and demonstrating to stakeholders that sustainability is genuinely aligned to business strategy, you provide stakeholders with certainty and stability which in turn drives business performance and public confidence. And this is a moment in time where leaders have social license to talk about their vision for the future, even if they don’t have all the answer.  

“For all brands, sustainability goals need to connect back to their purpose that gives them a really meaningful way to communicate what they're doing,” she added.    

Nominations for the CMO50 2022 list of Australia's most innovative and effective marketing leaders are closing on 26 August 2022! Don't miss this opportunity to be recognised among the best marketers this country has to offer as well as celebrate your team's achievements get your questionnaire completed now:

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