Getting cut through for your sustainability story

By Nikki Wright

The just-released Better Futures Report 2019 has revealed which sustainability-related issues Kiwis are most concerned about.

The research found a growing number of New Zealanders are highly committed to living sustainable lifestyles, which is a win.

What’s a fail, however, is the report found 83% of consumers believe the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitments is confusing. The number is up 11 points to an all-time high, meaning businesses are finding it harder than ever to get cut through for their sustainability stories.

The report - based on a survey of 1000 Kiwis by Colmar Brunton and the Sustainable Business Council - comes during a week in which tens of thousands of New Zealanders jumped aboard Kiwibank’s I AM HOPE campaign, whereby a dollar for Mike King’s Gumboot Up NZ Fund is donated by Kiwibank for every Facebook frame. Why does I AM HOPE reach the audience with such success when sustainability stories are less effective?

Here’s what’s going on.

  • Kiwis have said they want companies to care about the following, in order: build-up of plastic in the environment; the cost of living; suicide rates; the protection of children; the ageing population; pollution, personal data, healthcare and housing affordability.
  • Seven out of ten members of the public can’t name people or brands leading sustainability campaigns to remedy the above concerns.
  • Brand leaders – who the public struggle to identify – have had large amounts of money spent on training them to be effective sustainability storytellers.

Here’s the storytelling challenge and how we might solve it.

  • Former comedian Mike King is synonymous with suicide prevention and depression awareness.
  • All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan has been knighted for his work in depression awareness.
  • When we think of actress Lucy Lawless, we think of  Greenpeace

Brands must show leadership – or select leaders – if they want their sustainability messages to have stickability. 

Consumers are wary of greenwashing (the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of something). Simply saying a product is natural or organic doesn’t cut it. (After all, arsenic is natural and organic!)

Here are some better storytelling examples.

  • New World supermarkets picked a symbolic date (January 1 2019) as their target for going plastic bag-free.
  • Whittaker’s chocolate let the world know when it achieved Fairtrade certification for two of its products and banned palm oil from all blocks, taking a progressive stance ahead of competitors.
  • Wright Communications worked with Moana New Zealand to link the company’s sustainability efforts with awareness of Moana’s ethos as kaitiaki/guardians of Tangaroa to ensure seafood is left for future generations.

Here’s how I recommend we tell sustainability stories for maximum results.

  1. Your business sustainability story needs to have a tangible product as its focus (fish, land, rivers, rainforest).
  2. Your business sustainability story could be enhanced by the use of a friendly face to share the ethos, whether a well-known ambassador or a person from within your business
  3. Have the audience DO something which is easy to understand, takes moments and is visible – an opportunity to showcase their own commitment to sustainability Share a Facebook frame, share a hashtag, upload a video of you etc.

I’m hoping if organisations take this advice, the Better Futures Report 2020 will provide an update showing Kiwi audiences have supported a sustainability stance and, when surveyed, can name the brand and the person that inspired them.

And maybe, we will see the number of Kiwis confused by the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitments tracking towards an all time low.

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