How to design and communicate a consumer-focused sustainability strategy

How to design and communicate a consumer-focused sustainability strategy

Robert Nuttall, who played a key role in devising and implementing the brand communication strategy for Marks & Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ campaign, shares his six tips.  

As head of internal communications for Marks & Spencer, Robert Nuttall played a central role in devising and implementing the internal and external brand and communications strategy for the retailer’s much lauded sustainability campaign ‘Plan A’. The project has been described as one of the biggest sustainability initiatives in the UK. Having worked as a practitioner designing and executing consumer-focused sustainability strategies, Robert has also been managing partner at CSR consultancy Clownfish before founding Green Mandate.
Here, Robert provides his six steps to devising and communicating a successful consumer-focused sustainability strategy.
1. Ensure that senior leadership is engaged to help address the issue of responsibility
“Sustainability can sit in many different places in an organisation. It could sit in marketing; it could sit in corporate communications; it could sit in corporate responsibility; and it could sit in finance. It can be in many places. One of the challenges for an organisation is that it is quite fragmented in terms of the responsibility – if indeed it is seen as the responsibility for anybody!
"This is where having senior leadership engaged is fairly critical, because you can get hand-offs across an organisation which may not be as smooth as they might be and which can lead to communication not being as robust as it should be or indeed the core plan not being as robust as it should be.
"You have to look at it on a case by case basis. But in very broad terms I would say that FMCGs and retailers are amongst the leaders in this area because they have seen that the business benefits tend to come very central to their core business proposition and so they place sustainability somewhere that is central to the business (although where that will be will depend upon their internal structures). So sustainability is not so much a department, but it is the fact it has board representation at the highest level."
2. You can’t devise a strategy until you have unearthed your present standing
"The first challenge is to look across all of your core business activities and understand what impact (whether positive or not so positive) your current processes or steps are having in terms of the environment, communities, employees and indeed the core business process – is it as efficient as it can be? This is the process of unearthing, and you can’t devise a strategy until you know where you’re starting from. It is from this critical process that you take a clear view as to where you want to go, by when, and ideally how – because the core element of any communication in this area is that it has to be transparent, verifiable and measurable, and without that there is no robustness or authenticity to it.  
"This initial step requires an interesting suite of skills, depending on the nature of the industry, because it may require scientific understanding, financial process understanding and understanding of core business processes. So you can find yourself coalescing an interesting group of people who understand the business from different perspectives and who hitherto may not have spoken to eachother because it does cut across corporate siloes who look at the business through a different prism and may come up with some very interesting findings, including both gaps and opportunities – which is of course one of the key drivers in this area."
3. Strike the right tone
"It has to align with the master brand. However, it is very easy to be very dull, and it is also quite easy to be trite about what is a very serious subject. Sadly, many companies do fall into one or the other – either being dull so that it doesn’t grab anybody apart from potentially the odd opinion former, or being so lightweight that there is no substance. You must find the balance somewhere in the middle – to which there is no easy answer!
"But it must also align with the master brand. And critically, sitting under that tone, has to be the hard facts. So wherever you go with it, it has to be underpinned by robust facts and figures, not only about past reporting, but also about future intent, otherwise it is just aspirations – and research shows that these days consumers are pretty skeptical about company claims about what they’re planning to do." 
4. Identify your audience – and then guide them
"When you look at the way most companies communicate, the first question that they ask themselves is ‘what audience are we talking to?’ However, when you look at a lot of sustainability messages, not only are they often not exciting, but many times you look at them and have no idea who they are trying to reach. If you ask companies who it is aimed at, for instance with the CSR report, they’ll say it is aimed at opinion formers. But if you ask opinion formers if they ever read CSR reports they’ll say of course not, they don’t have time. They are certainly not aimed at general consumers or passer-bys. They may be of interest to certain students studying sustainability but it is a pretty limited audience.
"Once you define the audience there are very few companies that guide or signal the audiences that might be interested. In other words, firms should highlight the bits that an investor might be interested in, highlight the bits that would be of interest to a consumer, highlight the bits for experts, and show the passer-bys who want to get a bit of a flavor of what the company is doing where to go. This is rare and it is usually just one size fits all."
5. Your employees can play an important role as testbed and advocates
"The companies we are talking to are increasingly seeing employees as the first port of call, for many obvious reasons in terms of telling them ‘here’s the idea, here’s where we want to go, you’re going to help us get there, so you are the first audience we want to engage’. And notice that it is ‘engage’, not just ‘communicate to’, because many of the ideas for innovation and savings are going to come through employees. So the engagement process is critical.
"There is also the matter of employees being advocates of the company. Interestingly, you can align people’s personal belief systems with a company objective, which is a pretty wonderful combination. I don’t mean everybody bowing at the altar of sustainability but many people do feel strongly in various ways about it and therefore you are pushing at an open door in terms of engagement and it is a very different dynamic to many corporate initiatives."
6. NGOs can lend weight and credibility to your message
"Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are becoming increasingly important on a number of levels. Firstly, certainly the research we have seen shows that what they say is more believed than what companies say. Third party endorsement or accreditation from an NGO is likely to carry far more weight than whatever the company is saying. I think also, even the more campaigning NGOs have become much more willing to engage with companies who are authentic about wanting to make a change. So there are alliances happening that you might not have expected a few years ago which are proving very productive. So in terms of moving the agenda on and from a PR standpoint if they can be seen to be supportive of your cause in the context of working together, working with NGOs can be positive all round – a win-win. A critical friend, if you like."
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