When hundreds of Wayfair employees walked out of the company’s Boston headquarters in late June 2019, their protest exemplified nearly two years of rapid growth within the conscious business movement and the communications problems that have been the byproduct of that speed.
Wayfair employees’ attempt to guide sales according to political values was a new twist to a movement that has seen many milestones. Two years ago, the newfound reality that companies even had values made news. Now employees are demanding their values be integrated into the actions of the companies for which they work.
Progress is good, especially for people and the planet. But the speed at which businesses are becoming vocal about their values may have the pubic questioning their motives. According to a global study launched in June, 81 percent of consumers said they consider brand trust in their purchasing decisions, but only 34 percent actually trust the brands they buy from. And 53 percent of consumers think brands “trust wash,” or aren’t as committed to the causes as they claim to be.
In this climate of social change, businesses are left wondering how to speak about their sustainability efforts, their purpose, and their good work. Companies worry: will people judge us for not having made a commitment to sustainability sooner? Will they think we are woke-washing? Will investors think we are taking our eye off the bottom line? If we know we are part of the problem, can we also try to improve the situation or will we be judged because we aren’t perfect?
Despite these fears, it is important that companies communicate their values — for both the good of their company and the conscious business movement as a whole. And the more candor they use when making values statements, the more effective their messaging will be in boosting, rather than hindering, the public’s positive perception of their brand.
The following 10 fearless-communication tips can help.
1. Admit to being a work in progress, and be honest.
Business is a big ship. It doesn’t turn on a dime. Corporate communicators need to educate the public about what it means to be sustainable or purpose-driven while also earning good returns. Being a conscious capitalist, a B Corp, or ESG compliant does not happen without focus, desire, research, commitment, money, time, and a great deal of effort. Explain the process.
2. Start internally by sharing corporate commitments with employees.
Employees are a company’s front-line ambassadors. They need to think the company is authentic in its purpose first, so they can convey this mission alignment to the public.
3. Set goals and celebrate achievements.
Don’t wait until the company is perfect. By stating sustainability goals, a company makes a commitment to do better, is incentivized to stay accountable, and has something to measure against.
4. Put your message into a story.
A good story prompts emotions in the listener, which elicit hormones that make us pay attention and feel aligned and happy. When a brand shares its story, audiences feel connected to it.
5. Make your customer the lead character in your story.
Brands that cater to women are finally figuring this out by using women with real life, rather than supermodel, proportions in their ads.
6. Keep it positive.
When the message seems too dire, people assume the problem is too large for them to make an impact so they don’t try. This is one of the reasons it has been so hard to get people to care about the climate crisis. Companies have been successful by reversing the focus to the positive to get their point across.
7. Admit to being part of the problem.
Companies don’t have to be perfect to talk about sustainability. Eileen Fisher is a great example. Admitting that the fashion industry is a large polluter is part of their campaign.
8. Answer the question, “So what?”
Connect the dots, rather than leaving it for consumers to imply the why. Instead of talking about efforts to recycle, explain that by 2050, plastic is expected to be more prevalent in the ocean than fish, and so the company is investing in a circular economy.
9. Know your audience and shape messaging to it.
10. Use this winning formula: Problem, Action, Solution.
Communicate your company’s values by first explaining the problem the company is working to solve, the actions it is taking, and the solution it is achieving. This is a satisfying formula that customers can understand, buy into, and remember.
In many aspects of life, fear is a sign to act. If a company is afraid of what people will think or say, that’s a clue to investigate its values and actions. If they are aligned, communicate them proactively and prolifically.
Jackie Herskovitz Russell
Jackie Herskovitz Russell is the founder and president of Teak Media + Communication, a B Corp Certified public relations firm.