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Brand Sustainability Stories That Tell Themselves


The following article first published January 9, 2014 in CSRWire.

Sustainability can be a complex topic for any corporation or brand to communicate; yet to persuade the range of stakeholders to “buy” it, the “whys” and “hows” must be whittled down to their simplest form. Add to that already steep challenge the findings of the Hartman Group Sustainability 2013 Report:

We are seeing a broad gap in the way consumers and companies think about and approach sustainability. That very few consumers today can name a sustainable company underscores the fact that so many Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability activities go relatively unnoticed by consumers.

Closing the Gap by Storytelling

To close that gap and educate consumers, brand representatives and academic presenters at the recent Yale Interbrand Sustainability Marketing Summit powerfully demonstrated the importance of storytelling. Getting the stories to tell themselves is the key.

Startups like Warby Parker, Zady and FEED, as well as established brands like Stonyfield Farms and Applegate, were among those at the Yale Club exploring just how stories get “baked into” brand DNA. Though there was consensus that consumers still want brands to lead with the product, it seems that the stories surrounding the product will likely and soon take over.

Interestingly, the most compelling narratives that emerge this way may not align perfectly with what brand communicators intend. And, whether they like losing this control or not, brands must embrace this process. It is simply the way by which stories begin to tell themselves. As one surprising example, Stonyfield’s Gary Hirshberg shared that the most effective storyline with today’s food industry consumers is not whether a product is “sustainable” or “organic,” but whether there are pesticides involved in any way.

So, how do you tell the cold and technical, “no pesticide” story so it will be heard and truly persuade consumers?

Stonyfield’s communicators took the most direct approach once they knew this was the biggest concern, putting “No toxic pesticides used here” front and center on their labels. When that “chapter” evolves, Stonyfield, like other social media savvy brands, has already built channels to help them very effectively maintain relevancy despite rapidly changing consumer focus.

What Sorts of Stories Tell Themselves?

As exemplified by the panelists at the Yale Interbrand event, the Zady and FEED stories – of eco-conscious craftsmanship and the hungry being fed – surround their products. Zady is an extremely content-rich shopping and lifestyle site. And, FEED is “creating good products that help feed the world,” through a one word brand and a built-in donation purpose. These brands invite and support storytelling from one customer to the next. And, they know that tales told through content and real life story sharing go beyond the sale to inform, inspire and build relationships with long term social and environmental benefits.

In the Zady case, according to Maxine Bédat, the customer “likes to buy into something they can identify with.” It is not about being a “do-gooder.” As well, the FEED mission and product are so intertwined that it becomes very tangible for customers to be brand evangelists. They are proud to sport their FEED brand bags and accessories, and are primed to tell anyone who asks why they buy them. As Bédat noted, and as reflected by what many others at the Yale Interbrand Summit shared, these brands don’t see the people who visit their sites and buy their products as customers, but as their community.

Stories that Tell Themselves, Will Scale Themselves

Interbrand’s Tom Zara wisely posed this summit-closing question: How do we ensure and manage a brand’s ability to sustain the conversation?

Brands with storytelling in their DNA will likely have an easier time scaling up their communications to expand their reach and support more social good. The more stories told or shared through digital communications channels, the more stories can be created and shared by the customer community. New chapters of every brand can easily be self-perpetuating.

Furthermore, and thanks to the incredible reach of social media, even the most start-up level brand employees can be empowered to grow and develop thriving communities by way of social storytelling. Thus, the loop-closing step of training staff toward encouraging and managing all forms of consumer evangelism should not be neglected. If storytelling is truly part of brand DNA, it should be evident and consistent internally as well as externally.

The remaining traditional brands that fear transparency must get over their reluctance, if the discussions among the Yale Interbrand panelists were any indication. Sustainability demands that brands push through the inertia, and open up, tell the stories – and help customers tell theirs. True commitment and investment in this approach will build consumer trust and social capital. From there, brands have the power to develop the infrastructure around stories that continue to tell themselves.

Special thanks to Kate Hiscock for use of the Beautiful Books image.