Modern Brands Tell Their Sustainability Stories

Where should today's modern brands be investing to gain tomorrow's competitive edge? In sustainability. More specifically, in their own sustainability story.

But you don't make food or dishwashing detergent, you say? It doesn't matter. No industry or brand can afford to stand on the sidelines. The modern definition of sustainability is broader than nontoxic chemicals or organically grown food. It's about the way your company has an impact on not only the ecosystem, but also the social or economic fabric in the communities it is a part of, locally and globally. Even brands whose sustainability story isn't immediately evident can and should invest in telling their unique stories in an authentic way.

Soon, the question won't be whether or not your brand has a sustainability story to tell, but whether you're telling it yourself or allowing the marketplace to tell it for you. In the coming decade, factors tied to sustainability will disrupt virtually every sector, at times reshaping the competitive drivers of an entire industry. The implications for agriculture, food, water, energy, education, transportation, shelter, apparel, and so on are enormous.

Today's consumers expect brands to share their values. They are increasingly aware of the challenges our planet faces: a population of 9 billion people by 2050 who need to survive on the same land and water resources we use today. And they are looking for sustainable products and brands with a commitment to being good stewards of resources. Combine those expectations with the omnipresence and transparency of social media, and the bar for modern brands only rises year by year.

Corporate America is responding to this call and rapidly changing its outlook, first viewing sustainability through the lens of risk mitigation, then recognizing the role it plays in brand and corporate reputation, and ultimately embracing it as a core platform for growth. Corporate America is seeing that what's good for the world is good for their businesses. These leaders aim to meet the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet by measuring the financial, social and environmental performance of a corporation over the long term.

Given the right strategic underpinnings, sustainability can provide a significant edge for launching or transforming brands anywhere in the world. But it doesn't have to start with a bang. It can be scaled over time. Ultimately, sustainability is about creating profitable, growing companies that make real strides toward neutral and even net-positive environmental and social footprints, and that help their suppliers and customers do the same, all while meeting the consumption wants and needs of a growing planet.

Many companies are already leveraging their sustainability stories to improve brand equity, while others still struggle with where to begin or how to talk about their efforts. The only right answer is to start taking steps toward your goal. This process can be evolutionary, and any progress can be leveraged for growth. Start with these steps:

Lead with purpose. Define a sustainability strategy that answers how you improve people's lives and make the world a better place. Ground the strategy in the core strengths, values and beliefs of your business. All efforts should be authentic and tell a story that is important to you and your customers.
Connect through empathy. Understand what sustainability means to your core audiences and what motivates them to engage. Consider employees as your first audience.
Get specific. Sustainability is a broad term that can pertain to many areas, from food security and production to energy and water to generating stable societies through education and gender equality. A corporation's sustainability story should come full circle and communicate how it meets the needs of people, planet AND profit. Educating consumers about the financial piece shows transparency.
Find the right language. Translate corporate initiatives that often use technical terms into real consumer language. Sustainability is a vast subject for everyone, consumers and corporations alike. And use creativity as a tool to communicate.
Show, don't tell. When it comes to sustainability, demonstrable actions are the best means to credibility and engagement. Education on a particular topic area can also be a meaningful form of action.
Invite participation. When people buy into your sustainability purpose and values, they will be more eager to connect, share and co-create. And be ready to be questioned. All CMOs should have a system to help manage and see all the angles. It's about having conversations when consumers want them, being empathetic and treating them with intelligence.

These changes--whether enacted on a large scale or small one, can help brands begin to engage consumers and to tell their stories to the broader marketplace. Sustainability should be a promise from every modern brand.