As companies analyse their progress against 2015 environmental targets, marketing expert Jo Arden explains why honesty is the best approach.
As the new year gathers pace, many brands in the food sector are already putting together reports on their progress against 2015 sustainability targets. Last year was an important staging post for many companies on issues such as sustainable palm oil procurement. Industry-led initiatives such as the Hospitality and Foodservice Agreement on Waste also included 2015 targets and soon we’ll know if they’ve been hit.
As such, there is likely to be some debate about how much information should be shared. Despite fairly broad recognition now that sustainability is something that can only be addressed properly through collaboration, brands remain nervous about sharing what has and, more so, has not been achieved.
How should companies approach this now-essential area of disclosure? Communications strategy expert Jo Arden provides her top five tips.
1. Be honest. It is now a given that most brands see that the consequence of dishonesty is not worth the risk. Consumers want to – and should be able to – trust the brands they buy. And if there is even a whiff of deceit, then it is all too easy for them to find and share the truth. Diageo, for example, came under fire last August for what appeared to be some skirting around its missed sustainability targets. By being more upfront it could have avoided a lot of media scrutiny and speculation and explanations that, while very reasonable, felt less so after the event. So be frank: we are all in this together.
2. Be complete. Sustainability is a learning journey. Sharing the reasons why targets have been met or not met, as well as scoring progress against them, is really valuable. There is much social equity in knowledge – and brands innovating in the way they work have plenty of interesting experience that consumers would like to hear about. If targets have been missed it’s essential to get ahead of the story and explain why. In its Plan A 2015 report, Marks & Spencer gives the same space to targets that have been missed or are behind plan, as to those that have been met. The result? The reader feels like a genuine partner in its mission.
3. Collaboration. No business can solve its sustainability challenges alone. Community platforms bring businesses together to help solve issues from across the sustainability spectrum, reflective of a more openly collaboratively approach that is being adopted today. Mars has set up the Global Food Safety Centre, which aims to develop partnerships to raise the standards of food safety globally. Where collaboration has worked, it is important that brands acknowledge it in their reporting, creating a virtuous circle of trust and collaboration from business partners and consumers alike.
4. Make a follow-up plan. If targets have been missed then the reporting provides a good opportunity to review the plan and get back on track to meet the target over a set period. Several years ago the Walt Disney Company declared an intention to overhaul paper sourcing for books and magazines but failed to develop and roll out a solution. But rather than hide the fact, it shared the challenges it had encountered and committed to a new target within a new timescale.
5. Share with intent. People want to see any progress that brands are making against targets. Publishing reports is important, but so is making them genuinely accessible and enjoyable to read. Brands could think differently about the channels through which they share reports or highlights, and the format they take.
In conclusion, separating sustainability from brand feels increasingly odd. As those two things continue to converge, so should the communications that talk about both.