The global landscape of corporate responsibility is undergoing a seismic shift. As sustainability and environmental concerns rise to the upper echelons of public discourse, businesses are increasingly expected to take a proactive stance in reducing their carbon footprint, as well as actively embracing wider decarbonisation initiatives. Where once brands saw a robust environmental commitment as an opportunity to communicate a point of difference, today it is the very minimum expected by all stakeholders.
In 2023, decarbonisation communications strategies must be distinct and tailored to achieve maximum impact. In this article, Richard Broughton explores the reasons why businesses should adopt a differentiated communication approach for their decarbonising endeavours.
Tailoring the message to match stakeholder expectations
Decarbonisation initiatives can represent a pivotal turning point for businesses navigating the complex web of stakeholder expectations. This multifaceted journey demands an understanding of key stakeholders' diverse interests and priorities, including investors, customers, employees, and the wider community. By adopting a nuanced communication approach that addresses the unique concerns of each group, businesses can forge a deeper connection, build trust, and maximise the impact of their decarbonisation activities.
Aligning financial objectives with sustainability goals
Investors now play an ever-growing role in shaping a company's decarbonisation journey. According to a 2023 study by Morgan Stanley, 85% of individual investors and 95% of asset owners are interested in sustainable investing. These groups increasingly seek assurances that their financial investments align with sustainability objectives and demonstrate a commitment to long-term value creation.
To resonate with this group, businesses need to consider how they can communicate their decarbonisation strategy in financial terms in order to attract investors and funds that prioritise sustainable practices. Including metrics like Return on Sustainability Investment (ROSI) and the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors, specific to decarbonisation, in financial reporting demonstrates how decarbonisation efforts are contributing to both your environmental impact and long-term financial stability.
Illustrating this trend is the growth of the Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI), which brings together 2,300 institutional investors, managing more than US$80t in assets – almost half of all professionally managed money globally. Its signatories pledge to integrate ESG factors into investment decision-making because they believe such integration can reduce risk and increase returns, particularly over the longer term.
Content targeted at investors should be focused on positional thought leadership and demonstrating the impact of your activities, from an ESG, brand and community perspective. Campaigns targeting investors will likely focus on a mix of brand and ESG messaging, depending on your priorities. Other campaign activities, such as well considered and produced webinars, roadshows and dedicated investor days provide the opportunity to speak directly to this audience.
Customers: Building brand loyalty through shared values
Consumers are more discerning than ever before, actively seeking products and services that reflect their values and share their positions on issues important to them. A recent report by Accenture stated that 69% of consumers prefer to support companies that demonstrate social and environmental responsibility. Stats like these reveal that today's consumer wants to be part of something bigger, something more than a mere transaction. They want to believe in the brands they associate with.
To appeal to this audience, businesses must integrate their decarbonisation initiatives into their brand identity and messaging. Storytelling becomes a powerful tool, enabling companies to highlight the positive impact of their efforts on the environment and society. Businesses can build an emotional connection with their customers by authentically showcasing their commitment to decarbonisation. Engaging with customers through interactive campaigns, surveys, and feedback channels can also foster a sense of ownership in the decarbonisation journey, building an ever-more loyal audience.
Employees: Empowering the green workforce
When empowered to do so, employees can be a driving force behind successful decarbonisation initiatives. Prospective and current employees increasingly seek meaningful work and are drawn to companies prioritising sustainability, preferring to work for a company with a strong sense of purpose.
To motivate and engage their workforces, businesses should communicate their decarbonisation vision internally with clarity and transparency. Offering opportunities for employees to challenge and recognising individual contributions to sustainability goals fosters a sense of pride and ownership in the organisation's efforts. Employee training and development programmes on sustainability can further enhance the company's overall environmental ethos and create vocal champions for the brand.
Over the years we’ve developed and delivered countless employee engagement programmes and each has highlighted the importance of engaging with your teams early, regularly and with total transparency. If the organisation’s words don’t match its actions, it's the internal teams that will notice and the trust you are looking to build will be lost immediately.
Wider community: Embracing shared responsibility
Beyond direct stakeholders, businesses operate within a broader community context. Going back to the 1900s – and through to the 1970s – a number of larger companies actively invested in the communities in which they operated or even built entirely new communities around their operations. That somewhat altruistic mindset is now being reinvented for the times. Leaders in this space are actively engaging with the local community and demonstrating their commitment to environmental stewardship, knowing that it can foster goodwill and secure a social licence to operate.
Communicating decarbonisation initiatives in the context of community impact can involve town hall meetings and public forums, but the real opportunity is through collaborative projects that address local environmental concerns. Transparent reporting of progress and involving community members in decision-making processes strengthens the company's reputation and has a positive impact on the community.
Campaigns aimed at a local community audience are likely to be distinct to any other group and require a focused mindset, with a set of specific and achievable priorities. This is a group with specific concerns and needs so your activities need to first understand these requirements and then reflect them in your approach.
Transparency and authenticity: Building trust
In an era where consumers demand greater accountability from businesses, transparency and authenticity are non-negotiable components of a successful decarbonisation communication strategy. According to a 2021 survey by Nielsen, 66% of consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from sustainable brands, but they demand transparency in return. Brands that commit to sustainability initiatives but fail to deliver or don’t acknowledge fundamental challenges with core business activities, risk falling victim to greenwashing – a practice that can have devastating consequences on a brand’s reputation.
To build trust with all its stakeholders, a business must adopt an honest and forthright approach to communicating its decarbonisation activities and objectives. Genuine transparency involves actively sharing the company's decarbonisation journey, its progress, and its setbacks or shortcomings.
Audiences aren’t naive. If you are honest about your challenges and the potential obstacles in your way they are more likely to engage and listen. The majority of your audience doesn’t expect a business to be perfect immediately, but by communicating the effort expended and barriers overcome in the pursuit of your decarbonisation and ESG goals, brands can demonstrate their commitment to continuous improvement and show how they are holding themselves accountable for their actions.
In a recent interview with Enlit Europe, Ariel Porat, Senior Vice President at Siemens Energy discussed this challenge, highlighting that successful decarbonisation is going to need collaboration, innovation… and a direct openness with consumers.
“We need a discussion with the end users,” explains Porat. “A refrigerator made from ‘green’ steel will cost more than refrigerators made from the steel we know today, for example. We need an honest dialogue to educate and take everyone with us.”
“If we don’t have open dialogues about everything and what it actually means – that it’s going to be very challenging. But if people understand, they have this hunger to invent better things and cooler things… which will lead us there even faster.”
Educating the public: The role of thought leadership
In the pursuit of Net Zero, businesses have a vital role to play as advocates for climate action and environmental education. In a 2022 study by Ipsos MORI, 68% of consumers questioned agreed that “businesses should actively communicate their sustainability efforts”.
Thought leadership content is the perfect vehicle to do exactly that. It allows you to assume the role of credible experts, and serves as an ideal tool to drive awareness and inform audiences on the importance of your carbon reduction activities.
Thought leadership enables brands to become changemakers, transcending their roles as mere providers of products and services. Through credible educational initiatives, they can position themselves as informed sources of information on decarbonisation, climate science, and sustainable practices.
From webinars, workshops and whitepapers, to long or short form video and written content, thought leadership can take many forms By communicating complex environmental concepts in an accessible manner, businesses can inform audiences, help bridge the knowledge gap and empower individuals to make informed, sustainable choices in their daily lives.
Harnessing digital to drive greater impact
In the realm of decarbonisation, digital platforms offer unparalleled opportunities to amplify the reach and impact of sustainability initiatives. An effective strategy for social media, online content, and influencer marketing enables brands to foster greater awareness, drive engagement, and inspire collective action.
Social media platforms represent the dominant force in shaping public discourse and opinion. Brands need to leverage these platforms to initiate and participate in conversations about decarbonisation, climate change, and sustainable practices. Engaging content, infographics, and videos are able to communicate complex environmental concepts in an easily digestible format, capturing the attention of diverse audiences.
In addition to disseminating information, social media also provides an interactive space for businesses to listen to their stakeholders, address their concerns, and showcase progress in real time. This open, two-way communication fosters a sense of transparency and accountability, reinforcing the company's commitment to its decarbonisation goals and showing that it is willing to stand by its obligations.
Another online group to consider is influencers. They wield significant sway over their followers, and their endorsement of sustainability initiatives can galvanise widespread support. Collaborating with influencers passionate about environmental causes can introduce the business's decarbonisation efforts to entirely new audiences.
The 2021 HypeAuditor Influencer Marketing report revealed that 61% of marketers believe influencer marketing delivers a better return on investment than traditional advertising, but it is not without its pitfalls. To ensure authenticity, businesses must carefully choose influencers who align with their sustainability values and are genuinely committed to driving positive change.
Leveraging partnerships and collaborations
Developing mutually-beneficial partnerships and collaborations with organisations engaged in decarbonisation and sustainability activities represents another opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to transparency, accountability, and shared responsibility. This type of relationship means you can pool resources, expertise, and ideas to drive better outcomes while benefiting from the trust and credibility of the partner brand.
The exchange of knowledge not only informs the development of more effective decarbonisation strategies but also provides new and unique opportunities to communicate with your audiences, expanding your reach through the networks and channels of those you are working with.
Government ministers and departments, through to local representatives, also play a crucial role in shaping the landscape related to climate change and decarbonisation so should be amongst the stakeholder groups to be considered, depending on your objectives. Collaborating with governmental bodies and participating in public-private partnerships empowers businesses to contribute to policy development and advocate for effective climate action measures.
Successful lobbying is the art of presenting your decarbonisation objectives to relevant decision-makers in the right way, at the right time, and with the considered messaging that aligns with the objectives of the political body you are looking to influence. It’s your opportunity to plant the seeds of change within their minds.
Within this dance, don’t underestimate the importance of local MPs. They are the champions of their constituencies, including your own. Collaborating with these representatives can be a catalyst for progress. Engage them successfully and they become your advocate, heralding your cause to the halls of power and giving you access to those who would otherwise be out of reach.
That said, it’s important to understand how the unique world of politics operates. In this realm, subtlety is the key. You need to master the art of persuasion without appearing overly self-serving. It is the alignment of your interests with those of the government that will yield the results you are after. Present your decarbonisation objectives not as a burden but as an opportunity for collective progress, and you shall find doors opening where once there were none.
Overall, by proactively engaging with policymakers, businesses can ensure that their decarbonisation efforts align with national and international sustainability goals. Furthermore, these collaborations enable businesses to communicate their needs and perspectives, fostering a more conducive regulatory environment for sustainable business practices.
Find out how we delivered a comprehensive brand and communications strategy to build widespread support for The Solent Cluster.
The devil is in the details
The journey towards Net Zero is unique to every business, and no one strategy would be relevant to all. Instead, every brand must ask the questions, what does OUR journey look like, whom are we looking to inform and engage, and how committed are we?
Whatever the answers may be, your communication strategy for your decarbonisation and wider sustainability objectives must be characterised by transparency, authenticity, education, and collaboration. Businesses that tailor their messages to resonate with specific stakeholders, communicate openly about their efforts, educate the public, and leverage strategic partnerships will be the ones that get to stand at the forefront of the conversation.