How Sustainability Data can help Define your Brand Image

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KPIs, numbers and stats are of huge importance when it comes to driving forward your company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy, but they have less appeal to your customers. To the average consumer, this kind of data can often seem completely irrelevant to everyday values and experiences, unless they it is presented in such a way as to reinforce a wider brand image and vision. However well developed your CSR policies are, they risk losing much of their appeal in the eyes of the customer if the data behind them cannot be translated into a compelling, comprehensive and easy-to-understand story.

In this article I want to look at how you can turn your sustainability data into compelling brand narratives.

Forming a Single Narrative

For managers dealing with reams of raw data, it can be difficult to see the woods for the trees when it comes to pulling out a general narrative which links efficiencies, adjustments and trends into an engaging brand story. There is a challenge to be met, therefore, in going beyond the disparate nature of specific datasets and business functions to end up with a unified data topology which can be applied to a whole organisation.

The details are important and every piece of data will ultimately inform CSR policy, but many organisations lack the holistic insight to translate all of this information into a human story with the power to really have an impact on consumer behaviour. It can be tempting to try to convey achievements in the form of raw data and numbers, but experience and studies show that marketing messages with a heavy data component are often unsuccessful, with consumers preferring real stories with the potential to evoke real emotions.

Making Stories from Statistics

PR success is best achieved when companies humanise CSR policies, demonstrating their organisation’s commitment to have an impact on real world issues such as climate change. This can have a profound impact, as demonstrated by the fact that a Burston-Marsteller survey from as long ago as 2010 found that 70 per cent of consumers would be happy to pay a premium for products from companies perceived as taking their CSR policies seriously. With increased awareness of climate change, it’s likely that figure could be even higher today.

There is no doubt that moving from statistics to a cohesive story is not always easy, however. Simplification is often the key, and it is up to CSOs to find a happy medium between over-generalisations and overly complex data and convoluted interpretations.

CSR Storytelling Strategies

There are some core principles that apply to using data to create stories. Let’s look at the fundamentals here.

Inter-Departmental Communication

Strong links between the executive responsible for sustainability policy in your organisation (more and more commonly this remit is falling under the specific role of a chief sustainability officer) and marketing and PR is vital to make the most of CSR policies and ensure they are communicated effectively. A cohesive and holistic approach is needed, to ensure that all stakeholders, including partners, shareholders and employees, are fully briefed on CSR policy. Processes should be in place for successes to be reported centrally and not lost in a sea of data and department specific reports.

Make it relatable

Raw data is only powerful to people who can interpret it. Most consumers will need real world examples that they can relate to, in order to appreciate headline statistics. They also do not need every fact and figure to evidence an organisation’s success, or the achievements risk being lost amongst the torrent of data. The point is to create an overarching brand story that your data can quantitatively support and give credence to.

Audience understanding

Effective communication must begin with audience understanding. The audience will dictate how much data should be used. Corporate communications, for example, can often have more of a data focus compared to a generalised CSR statement on a company website. Although every communication and press release should be tailored for its audience, it’s also important to establish an overarching consistency of tone and style, in order to define your brand and keep audiences engaged.

The social media effect

Yes, CSR policies should be included on company websites, but this is not enough. Social media should be used to communicate and interact with consumers, drawing attention to a company’s CSR policies, responding to criticisms, driving conversation and engagement and conveying an image of openness, honesty and responsibility. As SustainIt’s Joe Jones points out ‘it’s no good talking about all the wonderful achievements your CSR initiatives are having if no one is listening’.

Data management

Effective data management is an essential starting point in any CSR strategy and bespoke data management software is essential if you are to centralise, interpret and act on huge volumes of data coming in from disparate areas of the business.

Conclusion

With so many sustainable business practices and programs being driven by data, there is a risk that your successes can become obscured behind a wall of complex and voluminous sustainability data. Learning to translate the data behind your sustainability programs isn’t easy but striking the right balance between detail and evidence and a compelling narrative is key to establishing your brand as one that is environmentally responsible and forward thinking.

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