Effective Communication for Green Brands: Say What You Do!
Image credit: Erento's blog
Professionalism Equals Practicality
A sustainable construction consultancy contacted my brand creation agency. We responded as if they were a sustainable building supply company. How did we make this kind of mistake?
Because nothing on they're web site stated what they actually did as a business.
They did manage to use the word "solution" 8 times, offer a "knowledge library" and provide a section detailing 4 principles of sustainable construction. They also have a series of information-rich brochures about building sustainability — none of which actually say what they do. (This is perhaps most frustrating because what they do is offer a vitally important service to homeowners looking to make sustainable decisions!) Here's how to avoid the same mistakes:I see this kind of miscalculation all the time. It comes naturally to sustainability, which is exciting, smart, and gives you a chance to learn all kinds of new terms. It's natural for brands and corporations to become evangelists for their cause —and in doing so, breeze right by the pragmatic basics of business communication.
Ultimately, brand communications IS practical. There's nothing technical about it. If you think things through by putting yourself into the mind of your audience, you'll do pretty well. Indeed, in my experience pragmatism is the height of professional excellence. Mediocre managers will play by whatever abstract rules are put in front of them. Leaders who make a difference are eminently practical. (I just read the Fast Company article on Chris Hughes, the social marketing wizard behind the Obama campaign; everything he did was relentlessly, aggressively practical.)
And in most cases, that means you have to tell people what you do. It's especially important in sustainability, because your business premise is apt to be fairly novel. Oddly enough, marketers tend to hire professional agencies for marketing initiatives, like web design, advertisements, trade show booths and social marketing. Yet the core structural elements of brand communication — like saying what the company does — frequently end up on the desk of chief executive or a senior person who is steeped in jargon and primarily concerned with not alienating potential customers. As a result, they write something so bland or arcane that it barely says anything at all.
Which brings us to another principal of being practical. Unwrap your jargon! Jargon consists of shorthand terms developed by narrow cultures, who then export its use outside the culture. Even the word "sustainability" is jargon for most people. So are phrase like "carbon offsets," "post-consumer recycled waste," and "carbon footprint." (You just search "Jargon Watch" on TreeHugger to find how pervasive this is in the good-for-the-world world!) Unwrapping these phrases lets people know what you're talking about and thus lets your communications reach more people. How you do this is a branding opportunity. It's a chance to display humor, insight, candor, edginess or any other trait that expresses your brand personality.
The next element of practicality concerns priorities. Rather than a practical approach based on what someone might actually take away from the communication, people tend to approach it like a test, making sure every point is addressed even if it takes 800 words to do so. The mistake most frequently made in brand and marketing communications is the one that most managers are least concerned about, namely being overlooked, disregarded, or dismissed. Practicality in communications means getting noticed. It also means that someone has to actually believe what you're saying. These matters are usually best addressed (I know I'm repeating myself) by putting yourself in the place of your audience. What would make you look at something? What would make you believe something? What would make you dismiss something or be suspicious about it? Communication is inherently competitive and inherently self-interested. If you don't get seen and find a way to be credible, you're wasting time and money.
All these practical concerns matter exponentially for businesses in the sustainability sector, because our communications are inherently more complex. In conventional business, what tends to matter most is price and function. Indeed, one reason for our current smorgasbord of environmental crises is our failure to account for that which is not immediately and obviously relevant, i.e.,toxic runoff, greenhouse emissions, soil health, fishery resilience, etc. Environmentally and socially responsible businesses DO account for these concerns in their business models. Which means you should also account for them in your brand communications structure. If you don't communicate these things, then you might as well be invisible. Getting market value for your actions to sustain our planet is eminently practical.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change - a brand creation and design agency that works with sustainable businesses and non-profits.
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Reality vs. Perception: On Being Born With a Green Spoon in Your Mouth
The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed
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