Sunday, June 1, 2014

Marketing of Sustainability Programs to Internal Stakeholders: A Blueprint

The success of a Corporate Sustainability program depends in large measure on its adoption by employees--even if the executive suite has bought into it completely.  While that's a big if, let's suppose that you are one of the few--and extremely lucky--sustainability professionals working under just such a forward-thinking leadership team.

In such an ideal situation, your strategy is simple (as distinct from easy, but more on that below):
Step 1: Educate--explain what sustainability is, how it works and how it benefits the triple bottom line of "people, planet and profit."
Step 2: Demonstrate--if education is telling, demonstration is showing; this phase of the program equates to an academic practicum, in which every employee has an opportunity to participate; after educating with theory and examples, develop a simple, easy to engage initiative that will have easy to see results.
Step 3: Recruit--after the demonstration phase, invite employees to leverage their experience, insight and unique perspective in order to indentify new opportunities to reduce waste and improve efficiency.
Step 4: Reward--find ways to give both emotional/personal ownership and financial reward to employees who originate ideas that become actuated programs.

These are the essential program components, and it is extremely helpful to think in terms of education as the over-arching strategy as you design your communications/outreach materials.  Why?  Because the idea that something that is good for the environment can also benefit the bottom line is extremely counter to the corporate culture that has grown up in the United States.  As a result, your job is not merely to role-out a new initiative, but to give all employees the conceptual tools to adopt sustainability, own it, and drive it forward as part of their day-to-day job function.  This latter point is especially important, because the most successful sustainability programs are strategically "top-down", but find that their greatest waste reduction opportunities areidentified on the "shop floor."  Therefore, management is doubly-incentivized to actively recruit rank and file employees into its sustainability mission.  Education is the key to this recruiting process.

Underlying any successful education campaign is a standard communication planning process.  As a result, the standard marketing challenges are in place: defining a value proposition, building awareness, over-coming barriers, getting "prospects" to try your product and building repeat "purchases."  The good news: You have a dynamite value proposition, one that virtually every one in the company should want to embrace--after all, who doesn't want to work more efficiently, while also saving money?  So the value proposition of sustainability is as universal as it is simple: sustainability increases profitability.
The bad news is your prospects are all extremely busy.  While sustainability can reduce inputs and thereby reduce costs, someone has to design the actual operational program that yields such wonderful results.  Employees recognize that this probably means they are the ones who will have to fill the role of architect.

Because you won't be able to count on most employees to jump right in and re-design core business processes (or even on them having the time to listen to and process the sustainability Gospel that will be the salvation of  their company), you will have to rely on old-fashioned hard work.  Most notably, developing a communications plan, and executing it across the entire enterprise. 

Your main steps in this process are as follows:
  1. Refine the language of your value proposition to dovetail with your corporate culture and strategic goals.
  2. Define "success" for your program
  3. Develop metrics for measuring program performance
  4. Identifying barriers: Apathy, commitments that compete for mindshare; antipathy (a certain percentage of people not only don't care about environmental issues, they actively think pursuing environmental programs is a waste of time and resources); time; term to payback; insufficient ROI)
  5. Construct strategies for overcoming barriers
  6. Establish achievable goals.  This is huge, and the long-term survival--to say nothing of success--may turn on this issue. 
  7. Consider Multi-level marketing.  It may be a bad word, and certainly has a bad reputation.  But the underlying model works: build a network of passionate missionaries to carry the sustainability doctrine through-out the corporate community.  Recruiting opinion leaders or otherrs who are well-positioned to influence large numbers of employees is especially effective.
  8. Review and refine.  Just like the management strategy of "Continuous Improvement Process", your program must include a protocol for regularly reviewing your success and modifying your messaging and outreach to capitalize on any lessons learned.
  9. Anticipate fail-points and short-circuit them.  Many sustainability marketing campaigns--like marketing campaigns in general--are prone to fail.  Why?  there are two main reasons.  First, the product is ill-conceived; second, the marketing campaign is either poorly designed or executed.  In the former case, it isn't that sustainability is a bad "product" and one that your target market is pre-disposed to reject.  The history of the auto industry is strewn with the wreckage of failed models--yet we all know that cars are one of the most fabulously successful products ever introduced.  Sustainability is the same: it has inherent value, but it must be properly crafted, regardless of how good the marketing program that surrounds it.  Employee education  initiatives of all stripes are no different from consumer markets, where "nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising."
The final point in this "To-do" list reveals some helpful additional planning considerations. 
Step 1: design and package the sustainability program honestly; don't fail prey to the path of least resistance suggested by green-washing: be honest with your stakeholders about the hard work ahead, but engage them as experts in the field who will be leaders in developing actual on-the-ground programs, and not merely on the receiving end of corporate mandates.
Step 2: Design the communication strategy, messaging and tactics for marketing it for mass appeal within your target audience.
Step 3: Establish easily achievable but nonetheless meaningful "first level targets".  Success demonstrates the legitimacy of sustainability to stakeholders, which in turn builds momentum and eventually loyalty to the program (also: cultural shift--the goal of a sustainability program is to get every employee to address every task by asking: how can I do this sustainably?); it also gives both the program and the executing team credibility with senior management which is necessary for on-going sponsorship and support.

A sobering word.
As noted, a successful roll-out of a sustainability program is a simple undertaking--but just because it's simply, doesn't make it easy.  It requires careful planning, studious preparation and willful conviction during the execution phase.  Just like running a marathon, or swimming the English Channel, sustainability program marketing is formulaic.  In the same way that endurance athletics is based largely on resolve and repetition, so too is program marketing that supports a dynamic and self-evident value proposition.  As long as you are prepared for a long ramp-up period of preparation, and you have the right support team in place, you will cross the finish line.

Summary: Marketing Sustainability to your internal stakeholders
GOAL: Adoption by rank and file at high rate
STRATEGY: Educate, demonstrate, recruit, reward
RESULT:  Succeed in achieving a high level of program participation and messaging uptake, reesulting in improved sustainability practices

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