Two weeks ago at the Sustainable Brands Conference in San Diego, I moderated a panel discussion called, “Humanizing Climate Change: How Brands are Creating Social Relevancy for Sustainable Change.” The discussion explored how we are transitioning to a more emotive approach that is better at inspiring advocates, particularly among the critical Millennial generation.
I was impressed with the number of people who attended and how much this topic resonated with the audience. It certainly warrants further discussion, but I want to share the insights my fellow panelists offered to me as we prepared for this session on why they think humanizing client change is such a critical need.
The Power of Storytelling
Stephen Roberts, Sustainability Brand Manager at Dell, made a great point that part of the challenge lies in the endless mounds of data available which is both a blessing and a curse. “It’s easy to become overwhelmed,” he pointed out. “Bringing the stories to life and creating connections that help others become invested agents of change – that’s what we need.”
As Roberts said, it’s easy to see climate change as a future problem that will be solved by the next great invention, “but climate change is here and the time for action is now.”
Creating relevant stories with strong human appeal drives advocacy across social networks. These stories help people understand the simple truth that climate change impacts them. They are shareable, give human voice to intangible ideas and drive action.
Making It Real
Every action in every community around the world adds up, noted David Tulauskas, the Sustainability Director for General Motors. Underscoring the urgency for greater action, Tulauskas explained that we need to move beyond mistrust by making climate change real to people and eliminating the political and cultural undertones.
“We need to be talking about climate change in terms of technologies that are inspiring and future scenarios we want for the next generation.”
“Take a clean energy future for example. It speaks of innovation, advanced technology, clean air and blue skies, something that is better. If people can buy into that, they can think about the role they can play. That’s what we helped demonstrate with Chevrolet’s #CleanEnergyU conversation—we got students talking about their personal vision for a cleaner energy future and what they plan to do to help us get there.”
Millennials do play a critical role in the process as storytellers and advocates for sustainability. Tulauskas pointed out that Millennials are digital natives and grew up watching TV Shows like Captain Planet. “Their impact on the earth is part of who they are. They expect business and government to take leadership, but they want to be part of the solution, too,” he said.
For example, Adam Mott, Director of Sustainability at The North Face explained how the brand engages consumers by getting them to drop off their unwanted clothing and footwear at The North Face retail stores as part of its “Clothes the Loop” program that recycles old clothing from any brand.
Tulauskas pointed out that Millennials want to be seen as part of the positive change that’s happening around the world. “They want to make their values known by the products they buy, the services they use, the companies they work for, and the causes they promote,” he said.
Roberts looked toward the scale and reach of social media as making it an important tool in addressing climate change. “It grants an immediacy to our messages and can create new and exciting connections that spur the kind of group action that’s needed.”
Tulauskas highlighted the role of brands in creating social relevancy and social change in developing products and services that meet customer needs while addressing issues that customers see as relevant to the brand. But, he added that the company or brand has to do it in a transparent, consistent and authentic way. “The companies that do this will cut through the clutter, connect with people on a more personal level and earn lifelong loyalty.”
Mott pointed to how he North Face is designing more sustainable products. He explained how fleece in the brand’s popular Denali jacket is now made from recycled plastic bottles.
Tulauskas explained that with GM producing automobiles and providing mobility services: “in order to create social relevancy around sustainable change, we need to address relevant issues in the communities in which we operate such as road safety and congestion.”
Unlocking the opportunity
GM, Dell and The North Face are all examples of innovative brands who are working with Millennials to create social relevancy in the climate change dialogue. By using digital platforms collaboratively and building in a more emotive storyline, they are able to engage with consumers in a more meaningful way beyond their brands.
Relevancy proved to be a key theme at the conference with a number of people asking how to make anything relevant to consumers, especially complex issues like climate change. This appears to be our greatest challenge as sustainability professionals right now. Presentations at the conference throughout the week highlighted we still haven’t cracked the code on reaching the mainstream on sustainability making engagement with marketing teams more important than ever and key to unlocking this tremendous opportunity for brands.