When it comes to addressing sustainability, the incumbent businesses that make the most material, negative impacts are often the ones that resist or are slow to shift to more sustainable approaches. Setting these large businesses on a more environmentally sound path could create a significant shift in momentum towards a more sustainable, flourishing world. However, these businesses often face cynicism from stakeholders and customers and may be demonised for their historic or current contributions to fueling unsustainabilty – there is little incentive to change if genuine efforts to improve are met with cynicism and disbelief.
On a recent consultancy project with a global food-service company, I was struck by how, despite significant efforts to address key sustainability impacts, there was a reticence to communicate these initiatives. Is this a problem? Isn’t it more important to make real changes to supply chains and business models than to communicate them?
This question is at the crux of whether a business sees addressing sustainability as a hygiene factor that is part of a reactive, risk-management approach or as a core business value at the heart of competitive strategy. I believe that to unlock true change at the pace required, it is imperative that businesses embrace sustainability as a key driver of marketplace advantage with their customers. This requires communication.
Last week the UK premiere of ‘The Naked Brand’ took place in London – a really enjoyable documentary film by Jeff Rosenbloom who heads up the leading US communications agency Questus. It explores how advances in digital technology are rapidly making businesses accountable to everyone. With constant access to the truth about the products we use and the behaviour and ethics of the companies behind them, suddenly it isn’t enough for a brand to look good with some glossy advertising – the business actually has to be great. The film makes the point that transparency either happens to you or it happens with you; a business has to choose one or the other.
“…transparency either happens to you or it happens with you…”
But transparency can be scary for a big corporation. From corporate affairs to CSR to marketing departments, experienced professionals are accustomed to seeking to ‘control the message’. This is clearly futile in an always-on, highly connected digital world of customer reviews, social media and micro-blogging; the control of what gets said about your company or brand has decisively shifted from the company to the customer.
It’s time to stop trying to manipulate and control messaging and instead look for a more authentic engagement with customers around sustainability initiatives. Stop trying to pretend that your business or brand is perfect in every way - be open and honest about acknowledging where you have more work to do and what your flaws and weaknesses are. Trendwatching.com’s recent ‘Flawsome’ trend report shows how doing this makes your brand more human and real for customers; there is a shift from customers critiquing the issues that you are trying to hide to a more genuine engagement with the issues and a more collaborative conversation around what can be done to address them.
During the Q&A session after the film premiere, Jeff made the point that in reality brands and companies are more likely to become translucent than transparent; if full transparency is interpreted to mean communicating every tiny detail about everything that happens in a company, this would then result in such a glut of information that actually identifying important or relevant information would become almost impossible. Transparency isn’t about making every waking moment of your company public; instead it entails a shift in how you communicate about your business from glossy and superficial window-dressing to a more meaningful and genuine engagement with customers and critics.