New Zealand’s Sustainable Business Network recently had its 2015 conference, Project NZ: Telling Good Stories, where experts shared tips, knowledge, case studies and resources on communicating sustainability. A key theme to emerge from the conference was the need for businesses to tell authentic sustainability stories. Here are the conference’s top 10 takeaway learnings:

1. Identify your purpose

People don’t buy into what you do, they buy into why you do it. One of the most famous protagonists of this mantra is Simon Sinek, whose TED talk focused on how great leaders inspire action. Consumers want to choose brands with a purpose, and according to Colmar Brunton, 64 per cent of people are willing to pay more for sustainable and ethically produced products. What you stand for is as important as what you sell.

2. Engage in social media to tell your sustainability story

The growth in social media over the past decade, which has given everyone a voice, has caused massive change in the way that business engages with stakeholders. Through social media, everyone has the power to publish, which can be very powerful for companies of all sizes. Social media and sustainability have in common authenticity, transparency, community and creativity. These speak to the challenges all companies face and by bringing them together you can be very successful in communicating your sustainability story. The four global brands that are the most active in communicating sustainability via Facebook are Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Dove and Nescafé.

3. Choose your language carefully

We’re entering an era of “soft” sustainability language, where it can often be more powerful to avoid using the word “sustainability” and instead use other words that resonate with your audience. For example, Collectively “tells stories about a world we want to live in”, which are sustainability stories without mentioning the “S” word. By connecting with people in a way they care about, you are much more likely to engage them. One alternative to “sustainability” could be “sustaining”.

4. Keep it simple

Woody Guthrie wrote that, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” Think about what you want to say first, then say it as simply as possible using plain English. Sustainability is full of jargon and acronyms, many of which will be unfamiliar to your audience. To engage effectively with them, keep your writing clear, simple and jargon-free. Eighty-one per cent of New Zealanders think the way businesses talk about their social and environmental commitment is confusing and hard to understand.

5. Know your audience

Know who your audience is and how it likes getting information. For example, IBM chose the blogging platform Tumblr to tell its story about smarter cities because this channel has a strong geeky following. Different social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, have very different audiences.

6. Be authentic and transparent

Above all, people look for respect and honesty from companies. Four key questions to consider include:

  • Who is your audience and what do they care about?
  • What do you stand for?
  • Are you being authentic in the way you communicate what you stand for?
  • Are you talking about what your company is doing rather than saying it want to do?

7. Connect with millennials

People under the age of 35 are tipped to be the most environmentally and socially concerned generation yet. They are also digital natives with the collective power to drive change among business and governments. This generation, which will comprise 75 per cent of the workforce by 2025, wants to make a difference. They care about who you are and what you stand for and it’s crucial to take the time to understand their values as this is a potentially lucrative market.

8. Quantify the business benefits of sustainability

Engage with your CFO on sustainability by focusing on the four main values of a business value framework: revenue, cost reduction, brand and risk management.

9. Engage with new media

Many media have become starved of resources and talent, with falling advertising revenues. As a result they are falling back on entertainment to engage or are co-creating content with businesses, such as through native advertising. Regardless of the source of stories, what is crucial are stories that are engaging and that people want to read. When you tell your story, think about the angles and what makes your customers happy. A good news story is something that’s different, unusual or going to change the world.

10. Adopt an attitude

Sustainability isn’t about ticking boxes: it’s an attitude that means you can maintain an activity forever. It’s a state of mind that means you’re in business because you care about what you do, not just about profit.

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