Four key sustainability engagement lessons from Project Sunlight


Unilever have been a clear leader in sustainability with their ambition and actions against their Sustainable Living Plan and have just started their first consumer-facing corporate brand campaign around this, called Project Sunlight. At Given London we have noticed a step-change in the number of corporate brand teams seeking to facilitate more sustainable lifestyles for their customers.  By analysing the launch of the campaign, we have drawn out four key lessons for other corporate brands seeking to engage their customers around sustainability in a meaningful way.

Lesson 1. Start to really engage customers

Customers are key: It is three years since the launch of the Sustainable Living Plan; while Unilever have instigated brand-specific customer engagement programmes before, the launch of Project Sunlight is the first time they have used their corporate brand for customer-facing sustainability engagement. Engaging their customers and changing behaviours to facilitate more sustainable consumption is central to achieving Unilever’s goals; customer use represents much of their products’ environmental impact.

Emotional appeal: The approach to engagement is underpinned by a powerful insight; encouraging behaviour change during a major life-change, such as having a baby is proven as an effective approach. While some commentators have criticised the highly emotional appeals made in the video, I applaud Unilever for tapping into emotion to engage people more profoundly. Too often communications around sustainability and business are weakened by a belief in the need to choose between the false dichotomy of rational or emotional appeal.

Lesson 2. Go big or go home

Unilever should be praised for launching a global programme at scale in a serious way and supporting it with significant investment. The launch video already has over fifty million views globally in just three weeks. The high number of views reflects both the newsworthy nature of any initiative from such a high profile business, the emotional resonance and controversial nature of the issues explored in the film and the significant marketing spend behind the launch.

Lesson 3.  Create an effective sustainability narrative:

The launch narrative: The launch film focuses on the worries and concerns of expectant parents by asking them what their concerns are for their child, then showing them film footage of war, poverty, riots and resource-based conflict and posing the question: Why bring a child into this world? It then shifts to film footage of children playing with a reassuring grandfatherly voiceover that says that the future is bright, everyone will enjoy longer, healthier lives, there won’t be any resource-based conflicts and that there has actually never been a better time to bring a child into this world.

What isn’t working: The lack of clarity about what the project actually is, the reassuring message that the future is going to be bright without any caveats, the omission of the very real challenges that need to be overcome to realise this bright future may make for good TV-ad-style storytelling, but it doesn’t make for an effective communications narrative for sustainability. When the message is coming from one of the largest corporations on the planet, a practical, reality-driven and authentic approach becomes even more important. People are more ready than ever for an authentic, honest message. Many recent examples show that the best way to build trust is to first acknowledge the problems and your role in creating them. Be ‘flawsome’.  Unilever inviting Oxfam to critically audit their supply chain in Vietnam is a bold example of this principle in action. When it comes to consumer engagement, however, other commentators claim that Unilever has shied away in the past from a more honest and real narrative with consumers around responsible purchasing of products containing palm oil. Being honest about past and future challenges allows for a much richer narrative arc. Of course it isn’t about unrelenting doom and gloom, but going to the other extreme and saying that nothing will ever go wrong doesn’t work either.  The ‘the future will be bright…’ message in the launch film removes any sense of urgency or agency around the change that is both possible and so badly needed.

A more effective approach: The Project Sunlight launch strategy seems to fundamentally misdiagnose the main challenge to be addressed; the challenge is not to make people optimistic about the future but to encourage people to live more sustainable lifestyles. A more balanced narrative would make the need for action clearer, while offering more grounded or specific reasons for hope (and there are so many!). It would also explain how the recipient of the communication can get involved. Fundamentally, it is just avoids telling the story about the change that needs to happen – by removing any grit or dramatic tension about the future and replacing it with blind positivity it encourages passivity in the viewer.

Lesson 4. Facilitate action, drive behaviour change

The user journey: The focus on parents about to have a child is rich ground in which to encourage behaviour change. Unfortunately the follow-through in terms of specific actions a participant can take or what the plan for the project or ‘movement’ itself actually is seems to be missing in the launch. Within the Project Sunlight website there are some calls for the viewer to take action, but these are hidden three levels down as side-notes to Unilever brand case-studies. Will the average user of the website be more interested in how they can contribute to a brighter future for their children or in what a selection of Unilvever brands are getting up to?

Brand- or Consumer-led? The choice to center the user-experience of the project sunlight website on Unilever brands, is in danger of creating the impression that this is just a corporate brand PR exercise, rather than a genuine attempt to encourage real change. Instead of being brand-led, a more effective communication’s hierarchy would be to first focus on the key actions that will be needed to achieve the Project Sunlight goals, arranged around key themes, then introducing brand actions in the context of each theme.  The Barclays LifeSkills website is a wonderful example of a business offering a truly useful digital tool to create the change it wants broken into key theme areas. To be an engine of change the first step is to be clear about the change you are trying to create. Unilever could certainly take a leaf out of The B Team’s book: clearly setting out and openly communicating an agenda, challenges and methodology.

We need many more businesses engaging their customers around an ambitious vision, offering a compelling sustainability narrative and creating smart tools to drive positive change. What role can your brand play in shaping a #brightfuture?


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