Today many businesses across the globe are offering innovative products that bring a sustainability benefit to the world and to their customers. But they often struggle to tell their story effectively and to engage their customers on the topic. So the question is how should companies approach this topic?

Don't Talk Sustainability or Environment

If you want customers to really engage with your story you need to talk about the things that make them tick – often this will not mean leading on sustainability alone. For example when talking about energy efficiency, you should also talk about money savings.When talking about reducing carbon, you should focus on the specific innovative processes and products that bring about this impact. At AkzoNobel we know it is far more effective to focus on the primary benefits to the customers rather than just the sustainability attributes that we would rather they had uppermost in their purchasing criteria.

Central to this is helping our customers to become more efficient. For example, our biocide-free coatings prevent organisms from clinging to the hulls of ships, helping ships to use less fuel (and produce fewer emissions). Some of our additivesenable asphalt to be laid without the need for high-temperature mixing, improving working conditions and paving performance (but also reducing energy use and emissions). And we have an exterior paint that can reflect up to 85% more infrared radiation than traditional exterior paints, which is helping to cut energy costs in buildings by up to 15% (and cut CO2 emissions).

Of course really listening and understanding the needs of customers is crucial. There is no use developing a product that provides a great sustainability advantage if in the process it doesn’t address the customer’s primary needs.

No Compromise on Quality or Price

In the 1990s, many consumer goods companies tried to create niche products that would tap into the increasingly eco-aware consumer. But people willing to compromise on price or performance in favor of green products never really expanded beyond a very small proportion of consumers. Today many companies are starting to realize that the key to success is integrating sustainability into mainstream products that perform equally well on quality, price and planet.

Choice Editing

At AkzoNobel we witness a disconnect between the increasing number of people who want to live more sustainably and their engrained purchasing habits. In our experience, consumers don’t want to have to make a difficult choice. They want us to do the hard work for them, providing coatings that are durable, that have low VOCs and that contain fewer solvents or no solvents at all – and that perform just as well as the traditional products.

Increasingly businesses are using “choice editing” to promote their sustainable products and services. Supermarkets in Europe have been doing this for a while to introduce sustainable alternatives to cod such as pollack, coley, hake or whiting. Another very visible example of choice editing is the phase out of incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient lighting alternatives,which was undertaken by governments around the world.

Telling a Positive Story

The whole sustainability movement is beginning to realize that the “doom and gloom” message that many environmentalists have employed over the years is not particularly motivating. For years people have tried to ‘sell’ climate change, using reams of data to support their case. But consumers aren’t buying these often dull and depressing messages.

Manycompanies are starting to wake up to this and can see the value in communicating a more positive story. They recognize the need to build a more compelling vision of what a more sustainable future could look like.

Of course, this is part of what companies have been doing for years to build their brands. And they are very good at it. They know that a strong brand can help them retain customers, attract new customers and even enable them to charge more for their products. A strong sustainability message is just another vital ingredient to this process of building trust.

Clearly, companies can wield tremendous power in reaching people and they should not be afraid to engage with customers on sustainability – it is unlikely to be a major motivator for purchase decisions on its own, but can ultimately build a deeper trust in the brand. Crucially though it must be done in a way that is relevant to customers and that builds on existing brand values.

When people ask us what sustainability means to AkzoNobel, we tell them that our success depends on it. But our story is an optimistic one – we know we have to do more with less and we see this as an opportunity as well as a challenge. We call this approach Planet Possible – it’s our commitment to finding opportunities where there don’t appear to be any.