Sustainability Stories that Break Through: 5 Principles for Success

August 4, 2022

In the hottest summer on record, the phrase “sustainable business” resonates on multiple levels. Integrating environmentally responsible practices into business operations doesn’t just answer an ethical call to protect our planet — it fulfills an increasingly strident consumer demand that can have serious consequences for brands and the bottom line.

Comparing 2020 and 2022 reports by First Insight and the Baker Retailing Center, recent Forbes coverage notes that consumer insistence on sustainability is surging at a remarkable pace, especially among key younger demographics. Among GenXers, preference to shop sustainable brands is up 24% since just two years ago. Even more striking, nearly 90% of GenXers surveyed would spend up to 10% more for sustainable brands, compared to just over 34% two years ago.

Against this backdrop, forward-looking brands are placing top priority on showcasing their commitment to environmentally responsible operations. Equally important from a business perspective, they must invest in telling these stories with skill, creativity and most importantly, authenticity, for maximum consumer impact.

Walking the tightrope of risk and reward.

While crafting a clear, compelling sustainability story has never been more important, it’s also never been trickier to do it right.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, legal action against greenwashing claims is surging in the food and beverage sector, with giants like Coca Cola making headlines over large false-claims settlements. Fast food behemoths McDonalds and Burger King are also facing suits over the use of damaging PFAS chemicals in packaging. And with the FTC’s Green Guides due for an update in 2022 (the first such update in a decade), we can expect the regulatory landscape to grow even more stringent.

As regulators continue to raise the bar, consumer expectations are more than keeping pace. In a hyper-transparent, socially driven digital marketplace, the raw facts and data behind brand claims are mere clicks away for consumers and critics alike. Brands no longer have the luxury of glossing their operations with slick-but-vague environmental promises, and green campaigns truly are only as strong as the business actions that back them up.

Crafting your story to meet consumers’ high standards.

While telling your sustainability story might sound daunting, at Wilks Communications Group, we see today’s high-stakes landscape as ripe with opportunity. Far from posing an obstacle to effective marketing impact, the curiosity and passion of today’s eco-conscious consumers creates a golden moment to capture attention and build enduring loyalty.

To meet this moment, we recommend considering five key criteria when shaping a sustainability communications strategy. It may not be possible for every initiative to check all five of these boxes, but each of these principles plays an important role in building the credibility and traction that will pay your efforts back.

A breakthrough sustainability story will be:

1. Backed by strategic business action.

At heart, this principle is about moving beyond charitable giving.  While financial contributions to environmental organizations are certainly worthy efforts, they’re essentially table stakes for any brand serious about building a reputation for sustainable values. As such, they’re unlikely to garner special attention and loyalty from savvy consumers.

Standout green stories must be grounded in standout green action; proof that your brand’s environmental values run deep enough to influence business strategy and operations, not just a philanthropic sideline.

Patagonia Common Threads, which promotes resource conservation by actively discouraging over-consumption of the brand’s own merchandise, has set the gold standard for walking the talk of sustainability. Of course, this is an extreme example, but the ideas behind it are accessible to any organization and relatable to any generation of customer. Even the smallest brands and businesses can earn genuine consumer respect by weaving sustainable practices into core operations — and that’s where a great story begins.

2. Intuitively connected to your category.

Ideally, your sustainability story will grab consumers’ attention and linger on their minds. That’s the definition of a good story! But it’s only good marketing if that story remains inextricably linked to your brand in culture and memory. This is where a clear, intuitive category connection makes all the difference.

The Tide Turn to Cold Campaign hits this nail on the head with a simple call to consumers to conserve energy by washing their laundry in cold water. Not only does this campaign promote sustainable values, but it also gives consumers a reason to recall and appreciate the Tide brand with every load.

3. Simple.

We encourage every brand to embrace as many sustainable practices as possible. But that doesn’t mean you should talk about all of them. A powerful green story — like any effective marketing message — must be simple enough to grasp in just a few words. Tide’s Turn to Cold campaign succeeds in this mandate, as does sustainable fashion brand TenTree, where every item purchased plants ten trees. What could be simpler?

4. Specific.

A close cousin of simplicity, specificity is key when crafting a story that’s easy to understand, remember and share with others. Here we appreciate Coors’ plastic-reduction campaign, which builds from the singular, easy-to-grasp idea of eliminating the plastic rings on six-packs.

Plastic-reduction is just one of many sustainability initiatives at Coors. But in this campaign, the brand wisely chooses to tell a deep, rich story on one topic, rather than overwhelming (or boring) their audience with a laundry list of disparate environmental claims.

5. Wrapped in a memorable creative frame.

When your organization does the hard work of making sustainability a business practice, it’s only natural to want to shout your stats and impact data to the world. But that approach only sets your brand afloat on a sea of sameness.

Consumers will always be more attracted and moved by a great creative hook than by facts alone, no matter how compelling the data may be. Just Eggs “Egging Congress” campaign scores high marks with a provocative headline and visuals that draw consumers in, priming them to absorb and appreciate the brand’s environmental position. Similarly, Dropps’ Naked Truth foregoes dull competitive claims against traditional detergent in favor of… a middle-aged naked guy. (Go ahead and click that link now, if you haven’t already.)

At Wilks Communications Group, we specialize in helping brands craft distinctive, memorable stories that break through a crowded landscape and build lasting consumer love. If you’re interested in hearing how our team of strategists and communicators can help elevate your sustainability messaging, we hope you’ll get in touch.


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