Personality goes a long way

One of the perennial criticisms of CSR programmes is that they are designed at best to assuage corporate guilt, or at worst to deflect attention […]

One of the perennial criticisms of CSR programmes is that they are designed at best to assuage corporate guilt, or at worst to deflect attention away from negative impacts on the planet and society. Accusations of greenwash centre on this.

The journey of many businesses – regularly described in Corporate Citizenship Briefing and elsewhere – to account for social and environmental externalities, to integrate CSR reporting into their financial cycle and to insert sustainability into the core business agenda, shows that progress is being made, and that the old habits of waving CSR reports about like magicians’ wands to distract attention from what’s really going on, are dying out.

But the accusations linger. The suspicions remain – among the general public as well as campaigners and the media – that the commitments of many businesses to sustainability aren’t, well, that sustainable. They find it hard to believe what businesses are saying. And part of the reason for that is the way businesses are saying it.

Brands – and by that I mean corporate brands as well as consumer – are getting more adept at choosing social initiatives that link to their commercial goals, making them more sustainable. Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand’s award-winning championing of handwashing to increase child survival links directly to selling more soap. Nike’s long-standing activism to empower girls through sport doesn’t harm its sales of female sportswear. And GSK is being increasingly open about how its partnerships with Save the Children and others to tackle disease in Africa support their long-term market development plans. We’re seeing fewer and fewer examples of brands simply supporting the chairman’s pet charity.

But identifying the right cause is only half the battle. Brands have to follow through and talk about social causes – and sustainability more generally – in the same voice, with the same brand personality, as they talk about everything else. Talking about sustainability differently to how the business normally talks is dangerous for two reasons. Talking in hushed, worthy tones, born out of a desire to show guilt-ridden reverence to the forces of good, often as not smacks of insincerity, and does nothing to change perceptions, nothing to build trust, and nothing to stop the accusations of greenwash. More insidiously, ‘sustainability-talk’ sends a subliminal message to employees that this stuff isn’t really part of the business, and is just necessary PR that can safely be ignored.

Campaigning organisations understand this instinctively, and use the power of the brand voice to increase the pressure for change – witness Greenpeace’s current campaign targeting the Head and Shoulders brand with a ‘100% rainforest destruction’ message that mirrors the brand’s own ‘100% flake free’ claim.

Here are three simple ways to overcome the cynics and help make sustainability initiatives more sustainable:

  1. Talk in your brand tone of voice. Apply brand marketing guidelines just as rigorously to sustainability communications as you would to brand advertising. Don’t feel the need to talk worthy, or to try and adopt the virtuous personality of a charity partner.
  2. Be transparent about where you’re at in your sustainability journey. Don’t overclaim, don’t hide the facts, but equally don’t be unduly humble about what you’ve achieved and what you want to do.
  3. Be open about the business benefits you aim to achieve. Nothing builds confidence and authority like a clear vested interest.