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Emotion Is Currency: A Five-Point Plan for Effective Sustainability Communications

The Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" video has over 1,150,000 views on YouTube | Image credit: Rainforest Alliance

"How will it deliver value?" is a commonly heard response to a proposal for a new sustainability communications campaign.

Behind this innocent little phrase is a dangerous assumption that sustainability communications is a separate strand of activity with a message aimed at a hypothetical audience segment of 'greens.'

The result? 'Rinse and repeat' sustainability communications: anodyne images of families cycling through fields of sunflowers or wind turbines rotating dreamily on the horizon, which can never deliver value for the brand because they're too technical or too specialised to appeal to everybody.

To make sustainability communications work for brands we need to break away from the segmentation mindset. We need to ditch the assumption that there is a distinct group waiting for green messages and a larger mass who are uninterested. Instead we need to think about what both groups have in common. Sustainability communications will only deliver value to the brand if they are based on brand strategy and integrated with mainstream communication activity.

Here's my five-point plan on how to create sustainability communications that deliver value by broadening appeal.

  1. Don't focus on sustainability. It's boring and technical. In the words of legendary graphic designer Alan Fletcher: Look sideways. A Smarter Planet is an aspirational battle cry for IBM and far more interesting than talking about sustainable supply chains and efficiency.
  2. Find a purpose. Don't just tell us about incremental sustainability improvements. Aim for something big, fly a massive banner about it and create ways for people to get involved. Levi's has a purpose — saving water — and are doing something about it, from developing Water<Less denim to encouraging people to wash their jeans wisely. Both fit a purpose closely aligned to their brand.
  3. Be useful. Utility is the new black, so use your comms dollars to make something people can use. When Nike open-sourced their Material Sustainability Index and allowed designers and hackers to use years of data, they created a tool that got people creating and talking in ways that traditional communications could never do.
  4. Embrace emotion. In a time where hairspray can give us attitude and insurance can make us laugh surely we can make people feel about the future of the planet?! Emotion is the currency of communication. Advertisers know that, but for some reason sustainability communications shy away from it. Some brands are showing the way — who didn't have a little tear well up when they first watched Chipotle's "Back to the Start" video? 
  5. Be remarkable. Launch a pre-emptive strike on "so what" by creating something unique that gets people talking. Our expectations are set by commercial communications, but you don't need a stellar budget or launch someone into space to do a great job. A snappy script and tight editing meant The Rainforest Alliance's "Follow the Frog" short film had me laughing out loud. H&M caught my eye by having Vanessa Paradis model their new sustainable collection.

Sustainability communications are some of the crunchiest challenges around. They need the best brains to solve them. Clients: Position these as the best creative opportunities out there and demand your agency's A-team. Agencies: Realise this is your chance to make a difference. It's time to craft something for everyone to talk about.

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of how brands can effectively share their values with consumers through #Communications, check out our Issue in Focus: Communicating Sustainability.

Ben joined Wolff Olins in 2013 as a senior strategist helping to push the strategic thinking with EE and Virgin Media.After completing his Masters in Environmental Technology at Imperial College, he set up his own B2B recycling start-up… [Read more about Ben Maxwell]


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