Not Wasting Words: Identifying the Right Sustainability Message
by Jennifer Murphy

  • Identifying The Right Sustainability Message

    Sustainability is a "messy" topic. It can evoke differing images for different people, and it may evoke nothing in others.

    The topic is also messy in that the focus and importance may shift, depending on what specific vertical or part of a product lifecycle we are talking about.

    The internet does not deliver a clear consensus on a definition. For example, searching "key pillars of sustainability" results in articles about "the 3 pillars of sustainability," “the 4 pillars…,” and “the 5 pillars…” Disagreement on how many pillars there are doesn’t sound like a good foundation on which to build anything.

For the purposes of this article, I'm thinking of sustainability—in the context of corporate responsibility—as how a company interacts with all of its stakeholders (including customers and employees), its ecosystem, and the planet in a way that will allow all parties to keep on keeping on.

Your company has done the hard work of defining sustainability in your arena, researched the topic, and set goals and created initiatives that have the full support of the board. These steps are essential to curtail the risk of greenwashing accusations on social media or in the courts.

Now, how do you best communicate your plan to your customers? Does the word "sustainability" mean the same thing to your customers as it does to your organization? How can you assure that your initiatives are seen as more than merely lofty ideals?

For example:

  • Do you need the Fair Wear logo on your garments, or would a description around "livable wages" be more compelling?
  • Is the term “regenerative farming practices” clear to the average cereal buyer, or would detailing your supplier’s composting and crop-rotation efforts be more effective?

While sustainability does not always have a clear and easy answer, the question of knowing what to say and how to say it does. As a side note, sustainability can be the primary message your brand is communicating or a strong supporting message to a broader one, as mentioned in a recent blog by my colleague, Felicia Rogers. Either way, it’s important to develop a dialogue with your customers and prospects. Primary research—with several key accounts or with a sampling of your category consumers—can provide you with invaluable feedback. While a Corporate Responsibility Leader and others may be well-versed in the topic, your customer is likely not thinking of it 24/7—at least not in terms of your company’s stance and goals.

Here are 3 key research steps to find the right sustainability message.

  1. Beginning with focus groups or 1-on-1 interviews can help set the framework for how to talk about your efforts on the corporate website, in press releases, or on packaging. A focused but flexible discussion guide will uncover what sustainability means to your customers and your business partners (both generally and in your specific industry), gauge how important the topic is to them, identify sources they trust on the topic, and uncover what words make sense to them in the context of your website or packaging.
  2. The next step is conducting message-testing research to present these hypotheses uncovered in phase 1 to a wider, more representative audience. I'm a big fan of MaxDiff Analysis in this situation, assuming you are trying to narrow down a range of attributes. After creating a list of 20 or so phrases, claims, packaging elements, etc., it is important to know which will appeal most strongly to the widest audience, or to a particular subset of customers and prospects.

    Respondents select the phrase, claim, or package element that would be the most motivating to purchase and the least motivating to purchase across a series of combinations. Since a rating scale would likely result in all statements as being at least somewhat motivating, MaxDiff helps uncover which elements really rise to the top. Most motivating could be replaced with a different test, like most believable or most important.
  3. Next comes assessing final stage copy/package designs. Confirming that the new message, in context of your website or package, better communicates sustainability than the prior version will elevate the importance of your sustainability initiatives among management. Importantly, ensuring that you are communicating your sustainability message in a succinct and believable way reduces waste—wasting words, wasting package space, and wasting your customer's time.

Kermit the Frog let us know that it’s not easy being green, but a solid research plan can give you confidence that your corporate sustainability efforts are meaningful and impactful to your customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

About the Author

Jennifer Murphy is a Senior Account Executive at Decision Analyst, and she welcomes feedback and comments. She may be reached by email, or phone at 1-817-640-6166.


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