Sustainability transcends politics: stop muddying your message

In marketing and strategic communications, the goal is to reach and engage a target audience. To accomplish this goal it is important to find common ground. Find the issues and language that most, if not all, agree on and use them as a vehicle to carry or amplify your message.

In any communication strategy, it is important to adhere to the Aristotelian proofs of ethos, logos, and pathos. Establish character and why the business or individual is an authority regarding the matter at hand. Clearly show the logic as to why the issue is important to the business or society at large. And, lastly, evoke the emotion of audiences to spur them to action.

Politics gets in the way of this approach: it is inherently divisive. There is no way around it. This notion became even more evident during the last national election cycle. When President Trump took office his disapproval rating was 45%, according to Gallup. And guess what his approval rating was? – that’s right, 45%.

Here we are eight months later. The current administration has said that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris Agreement, has taken a controversial approach to the Environmental Protection Agency, has attempted a travel ban targeting individuals based on ethnicity and religious beliefs, and called the majority of media and its reporters unpatriotic. At the time of writing this blog, President Trump’s approval rating is 36% – the lowest it’s been since taking office.

A nine percent drop is significant, but 36% is still more than one-third of the U.S. voting population. If you consider that roughly 200 million people in the country are registered to vote, that is close to 72 million people!

This is why in addition to engaging your target audience; your marketing goal should often also be to connect with a broader audience. When you politicize an issue or purpose, however, you automatically alienate a segment of the population you may want to reach – which is likely to include some of your prospects and customers.

At Longview, a large portion of our work has been consulting on Corporate Social Responsibility programs or working with sustainable and socially responsible investment firms. The most important lesson we have learned over the course of our careers in this field is that, like communications, sustainability only works if everyone is singing from the same song sheet. If large segments of the population are erasing the progress made by others, it becomes a zero-sum game.

Somewhere along the way, sustainability became a political issue. It is not. Sustainability is a solution. In business, the proper application of sustainability initiatives generates profit – it’s that simple. For instance, Unilever’s 60% growth can be attributed to its Sustainable Living Brands segment. Also, continued evidence shows investments that consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors continue to perform alongside or above traditional investment strategies.

It is undoubtedly important for companies to take a stand on important issues such as workers’ rights, climate change, sustainable consumption, poverty reduction, and access to products and services that meet basic needs. Consumers generally respond positively to businesses showing leadership, but it can backfire. There must be consideration paid to how the business plays into the bigger picture.

In financial circles, the message is different. Audiences may be more concerned with how sustainability leads to efficiency, mitigates risk, uncovers unforeseen opportunities, cuts costs, generates profit, and ensures success in an ever-increasing resource constrained world.

The issue surrounding the communication of the business and sustainability nexus is that language matters. The words that have been used to describe sustainability are often divisive. In some cases, targets can be segmented along political lines, but in communications it is more beneficial to be inclusive. For example, most people would like to see children receive an education, grow to contribute to society, and at the very least have access to drinkable water – regardless of their political affiliation. When forming a sustainability story it is important to leave the jargon behind and focus on the common language and themes your audience can identify with.

This is where Longview comes in. We understand the pulse of the public discourse and how segmented audiences consume and interpret information. Let us help you determine which elements of your sustainability story will resonate with the audiences you care about, what channels are best for delivering your message, and what mediums will progress your business objectives.