How can we forge a deeper connection with consumers on sustainability?

EXCLUSIVE: Sustainability practitioners need to personalise their communications strategies to drive engagement with an increasingly ethically-conscious consumer base, a cross-sector panel of experts has concluded.

Representatives from brand communications agency Given London, commercial broadcaster ITV and the UK’s second largest airport, Gatwick, appeared together on stage at edie’s Sustainability Communications Conference in London earlier this week.

READ: A guide to effective sustainability communications

Given London’s managing director Becky Willan explained that many corporates have historically suffered from a distant, top-down approach to sustainability communications which tends to alienate the average consumer.

Individuals are naturally more disposed to care about decisions that directly impact ‘me’ and ‘my world’, rather than issues that affect ‘the world’ more generally, said Willan, who called on sustainability professionals to centre social and environmental projects around the ‘me’ element to deliver more coherant brand messages that really resonate with consumers.

“Where sustainability practitioners have failed in the past is in framing the argument as a ‘the world’ issue,” Willan said. “If we can frame it in a way that matters to people in their own lives or communities, then people genuinely do care. They might not talk about sustainability, but they want better products, they want to work for a better company and buy from a better company.”

Given, which works to bring together sustainability thinking and marketing expertise, has launched a tool that helps brands realise the opportunity to make positive purpose a core part of their marketing efforts. The organisation’s ‘Wayfinder’ device investigates the biological basis of human motivation to identify the most effective strategies required to engage people around sustainability.  

According to Willan, many businesses are still struggling to connect their sustainability efforts to what their brand stands for. “One of the challenges faced by big corporates is how to translate corporate commitments into consumer-facing ideas that are distinctive and relevant and aren’t too top-down and corporate in their nature,” she said.

“There is a job to do for sustainability professionals to work with their brand and marketing colleagues to make sure that sustainability supports the overall brand positioning, and looks and feels part of that brand, rather than part of top-down corporate communications.”

Role models

The opportunity to connect consumers with sustainability issues is perhaps most clear for the media industry, which has a relatively unique scope to reach millions of people on a weekly basis through TV programmes and multimedia content.

As a global production company, some of ITV’s most popular shows can attract audiences of more than 10 million people and reach as much as 80% of the UK population. Speaking at the Sustainability Communications Conference, ITV’s head of corporate responsibility Madeleine Cobb stressed the importance of its programmes helping to raise awareness of social and environmental topics.

From the sale of Coronation Street character Roy Cropper’s re-usable tote bags to shots of recycling bins and electric cars, Cobb explained how her team has set about subtly normalising sustainable behaviour within some of ITV’s most popular shows.

“As a creator and distributor of content, media companies can influence what and how people think,” Cobb said. “This reach and visibility comes with a great responsibility, but also an opportunity to effect long-term positive change. If we don’t reflect society on the screen, then we aren’t going to reach a wide range of audiences. We’re obviously led by popular culture and the discourse that’s going on. Our sustainability messages are often led by what’s popular and what are people talking about, so that we can remain relevant to our audiences and push those messages.

“We’ll always have a box of Liquorice Allsorts, so to speak, because each channel and programme will have something different that they want to champion – there will always be a mixture of what is fresh, what is relevant and what do people want to talk about, versus where does our more central sustainability team want to have more of an impact.”

Powerful partnerships

Cobb added that a personalised communications strategy within the media industry can only be achieve by working in partnership with charities and non-profit organisations, to create campaigns that deal with sustainability issues closest to the heart of the audiences.

In 2015, more than 30 hours of ITV airtime were dedicated to various charities and causes through a combination of on-air appeals and campaigns. More than £24m was raised to support these charities, with the ‘Text Santa’ initiative alone increasing the total amount raised by 75% from the previous year. According to Cobb, this approach has helped to create stronger positivity about the ITV brand.

“Our partnerships are vital to us achieving good with our reach,” she added. “We can inspire, engage and empower our audiences to do something good. The real sustainable change comes happens when our audiences connect with our charities we’re working with and the causes we’re highlighting.

“Some of our most impactful partnerships are when we’re not raising money, but changing behaviour and attitude, which we have the power to do thanks to the power of our reach. It’s because we’re at the heart of popular culture. We take a look at a taboo or a difficult social topic and try and shift people’s behaviours and hopefully develop change towards their thought processes.”

‘Can-do’ attitute

With millions of passengers travelling to and from British airports every year, the aviation industry has an important role in engaging consumers with the sustainability agenda.

Also appearing on stage at the Conference was Gatwick Airport’s sustainability manager Rachel Thompson, who highlighted the various ways her business has addressed social and environmental issues that really matter to customers, from listening to and engaging with local concerns about air quality, to becoming the the UK’s first ‘Autism-friendly’ airport.

“It starts with conversation, dialogue and a ‘can-do’ attitude to deliver one or more of those key objectives, and to deliver the best possible experience for our passengers, and to do so in a safe, stable and sustainable way,” Thompson said.

“What we try to do is make a specific issue or a couple of related issues relevant to their journey or experience of our airport rather than about us, the company. On the other hand, we try to make the issue an optimistic choice, rather than something for them to feel guilty about. It’s also important not to make it about an additional cost to the passenger or community. After all, customers are also taxpayers. “

For more information on this topic, download edie’s free guide to effective sustainability communications here.

George Ogleby

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