Cutting through complexity is the biggest challenge in sustainability comms

Increasingly, we're living in a world of purpose-led brands and yet; when it comes to the sustainability sector, we still struggle to apply basic communications principles.

Cutting through complexity is the greatest challenge for sustainability comms, argues Becky Willan
Cutting through complexity is the greatest challenge for sustainability comms, argues Becky Willan

The reason for this is inherent in the issues themselves – usually complex, big and important.

But, if we want to create large-scale behavior change, and truly engage people in sustainability, we are going to have to cut through complexity in our approach.

We saw an example of this imperative recently.

Momentum has been gathering over the past 12 months around single-use plastics.

From businesses and government initiatives to popular culture, we have been told about the damage they are causing.

Then the Green Alliance, issued a statement saying a ‘war on plastics’ should be carefully considered and ‘managed’ to not inadvertently cause more damage than good.

And almost immediately, the ‘right’ thing to do becomes less clear.

It’s the same reason why recycling rates have plateaued in many places. People are confused.

Removing complexity is the perennial challenge of sustainability communications, but how can we tackle this?

Isn’t there a risk people miss the extent of the challenges we face in the pursuit of simplicity in communications?

The challenge...is to make new behaviours aspirational or simply more convenient, applying the basic rules of effective marketing and communication to the big challenges of our time and helping it all make sense to the people we are trying to engage.

Becky Willan, managing director of Given

1. Don’t try and eat the elephant

It can be very difficult to see information being presented badly or subjects being trivialised for engagement, but a pragmatic approach is critical. Identify the change you think your brand can create and pursue that relentlessly. Measure your success against achievable outcomes. Build momentum, don’t get stuck by biting-off more than you can chew.

2. Start with insight

If you want to change consumer behaviour, work hard to understand their world and how your issue can be a natural fit. Find the potential benefit of the change you are trying to encourage and frame everything you do and say in this way. Make it about them, not about the issue.

3. Engage, don’t lecture

Education doesn’t mean simply ‘passing on the problem’. The best sustainability campaigns enable people to engage with the issues at hand because they stimulate interest and action, and then show the change that they are creating.

4. Stay focused

It is critical that we are clear, focused and create simplicity from an issue’s complexity. Once that’s achieved, change the context to make it relevant, but stay focused on the overall message and goal. Just because you might be bored of saying the same thing, doesn’t mean that it’s not the right thing to say.

We must continue to debate the ideas and ideals that we are organising ourselves behind as businesses, governments and NGOs.

We need to drive impactful transformation as well as incremental change.

However, the challenge to sustainability professionals, brand managers and institutional stakeholders is to make new behaviours aspirational or simply more convenient, applying the basic rules of effective marketing and communication to the big challenges of our time and helping it all make sense to the people we are trying to engage.

Becky Willan is managing director of Given

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