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Sustainability Messages Must Be Backed up by Real Action; Here’s How

gonzalez, nayelli, saatchi & saatchiThe success of Chipotle Mexican Grill’s “Scarecrow” video goes beyond its glossy Cannes-worthy visuals or the 7 million views it has received since its launch last month: the online advertisement is a marketing feat because it taps into the power of storytelling in a way that reflects Chipotle’s ethos and is woven into all of the company’s communications. A look into Chipotle’s broader communications efforts reveals the lesson that for a sustainability message to authentically resonate with audiences, it needs to be part of a strategic communication plan and backed up by real action. These days, skeptical consumers want more than elaborate, inspirational words — they want transparent, consistent messaging and bold action.

The Scarecrow video works because it is not an isolated message, it is part of Chipotle’s ongoing strategy to connect with consumers — and that’s what makes it a winner. After all, the world needs more than 3-minute animated videos and flashy, one-time marketing stunts.

To build a more sustainable future (replete with conscious consumers and sustainable brands), companies must authentically communicate their brand’s story through ongoing engagement and action. In our perpetually connected world of mobile devices, Twitter and Facebook, consumers are bombarded with a flood of messages day-in and day-out — wonder how your brand’s sustainability message can rise above the noise and stick? Below are a few things to consider based on what’s worked for Chipotle and other sustainable business leaders:

Be Consistent  

If you’ve ever stepped inside a Chipotle restaurant or read any of the signage on its products, the tone of The Scarecrow video won’t come to you as a surprise. The video’s haunting melody and ominous imagery delivers a rallying cry against our industrial food complex — all the while redefining what’s possible for fast food and positioning Chipotle as the leader of that revolutionary redefinition. That is the same type of messaging you will find if you visit the company’s website, social media pages, annual reports, previous ads and recently launched “Food for Thought” section on Huffington Post. All of those platforms echo Chipotle’s commitment to make “Food With Integrity.” The medium is the message; and while your messages should come to life in unique ways through each channel, your message should be consistent throughout.

Be Transparent

Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles is the epitome of corporate transparency, providing detailed information on 90 percent of its products’ social and environmental impact. The website not only provides the public with an interactive world map that highlights every textile mill and factory in Patagonia’s supply chain, it also profiles key suppliers and includes videos that explain aspects of its manufacturing process. This type of transparency goes a long way with consumers. Chipotle offers another level of transparency with the nutrition and supply chain facts it provides on its corporate site, which includes an interactive map that shows where the vegetables and meat used in its menu are sourced throughout the country.  The more information you provide about how your product is made, the more consumers will trust your message.

Be Creative

One way Novo Nordisk engages its stakeholders is by sharing the challenges it faces as a pharmaceutical company through a series of interactive desktop games that explore three areas relevant to its business: ethics, climate change and economics & health. In its “The Convincer” game, for example, the goal of the player is to ensure adequate investment in diabetes treatment and prevention by convincing the Minister of Health to invest in proper diabetes initiatives; and in its “EnviroMan” game, players are challenged to reduce the company’s CO2 footprint. These games are Novo Nordisk’s creative approach to educating the public about the company’s commitment to sustainability. In the same vein, Chipotle developed a downloadable app-based game that invites consumers to learn where food comes from and how to “bring real food back to the people.” Whether it’s through a downloadable game, interactive website, offline event, or more, there are a myriad of tools available for you to creatively share your sustainability story and engage consumers.

Be Bold

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is no stranger to making a very public point. In 2011, Starbucks bought advertising space in The New York Times and USA Today to run an open letter from Schultz urging American political leaders to “put citizenship ahead of partisanship” and help restore the nation’s failing economy. Similarly, earlier this month on the heels of the government shutdown, Schultz announced a petition to ask Congress and the White House to “come together” and reopen the government; Starbucks bought ad space in USA Today, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times to promote the petition. Though his public stances have been controversial –he has addressed issues as varied as our political system and gun control — they are unmistakably part of Starbuck’s larger marketing strategy and reflect the company’s values. It is these types of actions that show consumers what the company stands for and make Starbucks more than just another coffee chain.

Another senior business leader whose voice is intricately connected to a company’s brand is Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Through a series of essays written by Chouinard and Rick Ridgeway, VP of Environmental Affairs, Patagonia recently launched “The Responsible Economy.” The campaign asks consumers to reconsider what our growth-based capitalistic system is doing to our world. “Can we even imagine what an economy would look like that wouldn’t destroy the home planet? A responsible economy?” Chouinard asks. A collection of very thoughtful and though-provoking essays written by Chouinard and Ridgeway are shared on the company website, and the campaign will soon include in-store displays and other consumer outreach strategies.

All of these actions — big and small, high-tech and low-tech — are extensions of each company’s communications strategy and not isolated marketing messages. (Because one-off messaging tactics are not only passé, they are ineffective). Brands who want their sustainability messaging to gain steam among consumers must recognize consumers’ predilection for consistency, transparency, creativity and values-driven audaciousness.

Brands such as Patagonia, Novo Nordisk, Starbucks and Chipotle have gained the trust of conscious consumers in part because they effectively communicate their sustainability story on an ongoing basis — and, more importantly, because their commitment to sustainability is reflected in their actions, such as taking public stances, committing to supply chain transparency, and defining concrete environmental conservation goals.

Indeed, the most important lesson of all is to let your actions speak louder than your words.

Nayelli Gonzalez is a senior strategist at Saatchi & Saatchi S, a global sustainability consulting and communications firm that promotes sustainability through purpose-driven strategy, engagement and communications programs. @nayelligonzalez

This article is republished with permission from Sustainable Brands, the premier global community of business innovators who are shaping the future of commerce world wide.

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