How to trust eco-friendly initiatives after the pandemic and not be greenwashed.

How are you contributing to fight the coronavirus? From turning their operation capabilities to produce masks or sanitisers, to allocating financial support for organisations in need; many corporations have stepped up to help and show their commitment to tackling the current crisis. This is obviously a great thing.

The sense of urgency and scale of the global pandemic has provided these companies with a chance to be seen as altruistic rather than opportunistic. If you are part of one of these companies, you must be proud, and if you are a consumer, it likely improved or reinforced your opinion about these committed brands. For sure, there is, and always will be a certain level of scepticism towards these initiatives, but today no one can deny the value of the contribution of businesses in this exceptional time.

This brings us to the point: if COVID-19, as such a massive and pressing global issue, has given companies a way to show their commitment with minimal risk of backlash, what will happen when the crisis has fully faded and the virus will be gone? What will safeguard the perception of authenticity of businesses social good actions in place of the pandemic? How can they minimise the risks of backlash or increased scepticism then?

The pressure on businesses to act for good will be higher than ever

These questions matter because consumer expectations towards brands will keep rising drastically after the virus. The numbers were already strong. Based on a study conducted by Fleishman Hillard in 2019, 66% of consumers globally wanted companies to show greater purpose and societal impact, and 69% said, a company must talk about its behaviour and impact on society and the environment to be more credible than its competitors. Similar data exist from the standpoint of employees.

The crisis has strongly highlighted the “do-ability” for businesses to pivot their operations to serve a greater good, at some cost, yes, but in an incredibly short period of time.

If consumers are expecting more, and if the pandemic has clearly shown the capacity of businesses to quickly overcome the obstacles to do good - proving again that it is more a matter of will than anything - it might be safe to assume that consumers will be on the look-out for more social actions from brands.

Businesses will be scrutinised and judged on the credibility of their actions more than ever. That’s where the challenge lies for them.

Many will rush to take actions that consumers won’t trust

With such pressure, it will be tempting for them to jump into the first or simplest ways to show their commitments, especially for those that were previously silent and lagging in this area.

They might choose “quick fixes” operated in complete silos, such as simply pouring funds into charities they barely know the name of, implementing one-off CSR programmes or opening a foundation with no long term goals, etc...

This brings up big risks and challenges

These actions are intrinsically positive on their own. However, rushing in to define and implement such initiatives without proper planning, clear goals and strategic alignment might lead to the opposite expected impact: being perceived as inauthentic and opportunistic. If not carefully thought-through and executed, this would just feed consumers scepticism and destroy all the efforts in the pursuit to gain trust and equity. Because yes, these actions will very likely end up being complete greenwashing or woke-washing, or at the very least being perceived as such.

Taking action means standing for something and expressing a point of view. It puts a company on the spot and always implies some risks. There are some paths which exist to minimise these risks and these paths offer guidance to develop actions that are relevant, credible and compelling thus to be felt as authentic by the audience. They all start from within, from the company’s own purpose.

How to do social good your audience can trust and engage with

Being transparent and consistent generates authenticity, a fundamental element of trust. A great way to develop consistency when it comes to your positive social actions is by integrating them into your core strategy and company ethos. Integration evokes integrity and vice versa. There is no magic formula nor a unique approach in developing an integrated strategy.

The following is my attempt at sharing an initial high-level framework to help companies kick-start or restart their thought process and get on track. These steps are fundamental points to explore, yet they are only starting points. Of course, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach as each company is unique.

1)    Work on your purpose and start from there

As brilliantly described by Simon Sinek, your purpose is your “why” - the reason your company exists beyond making money. It is an aspirational reason for being, that is grounded in humanity and inspires a call to action. Finding and articulating your purpose is key as it sets the compass, gives you a true north to develop on-going relevant and powerful actions to “do well by doing good”. 

Why finding/articulating your purpose matters?

·      As your true north, it safeguards the consistency of your action and maximises social and business results;

·      As the foundation of your vision, mission and values, it rallies your employees at the core of your company identity;

·      As the expression of your beliefs, it catalyses action internally from the people who share the same ones.

How to start to find/articulate your purpose?

Start by asking yourselves these key questions:

·      What you do now: what is the potential of your product/service to solve a societal need?

·      Where you came from: why did the company start in the first place?

·      Where you’re heading: what are your customers’ interests and human needs you can fulfil?

2)    Align your purpose-driven actions to your core strategy

Be it CSR, philanthropy or any other type of social good initiative; if you have defined and operated these efforts in a silo without aligning it with your strategy and ethos, you will not see much positive impact. First, from an operational point of view, you might be pouring resources in operations where performances are very hard to track and/or, struggle to generate strong employee engagement.

The disconnection with your business and the lack of consistency might lead your actions to be seen as inauthentic and /or opportunistic by your audience. Greenwashing may be around the corner and all the efforts or resources allocated into doing good might backfire or yield no results at best.

Aligning your actions to your purpose, mission, vision, values and core business strategy can strongly mitigate these risks and optimize your social good ROI and here is why:

Why does aligning your actions to your strategy matter?

·      It helps you to get internal buy-in: if your initiatives are linked to the core strategy of your company, you are more likely to get the financial and resource support at all levels starting from C-level.

·      It gives credibility: if your initiatives are linked to your business operations and purpose, you are being consistent. There is less chance for your audience to question your motivations because your actions make sense and match who you are.

·      It ensures a crucial long term approach: integrating up your actions to your business activities allow them to be sustained over time and not be simple one-offs.

How to start?

·      How are my initiatives related to my business identity – purpose, mission, vision, values?

·      How are my initiatives related to my company heritage – from company history, to what it’s been standing for and how it’s been perceived?

·      How are my initiatives related to my business operations?

3)    Bring purpose to life, nurture and monitor it

Purpose is a journey; the actions you are taking (not the ads!) are the way you bring it to life every day. To be meaningful and truly exist, it needs to be nurtured over time with on-going measurable actions.

Why does it matter?

·      It reinforces the consistency and transparency crucially needed to gain trust;

·      It allows you to track the performance and adjust when necessary to optimise social and business results;

·      It offers you a way to engage with your audience by showing your on-going progress and celebrate achievements.

How to start?

·      Set clear measurable objectives;

·      Set KPIs that you are certain you’ll be able to track in the long-term;

·      Be ready to measure from day 1 and act upon results.

4)    Tell your good stories – yes, stories

If nobody knows about your social good initiatives, you will not reap the rewards of all your efforts. At first glance, maybe your initiatives might not seem too appealing from a content perspective. Good news is that there are ways to share your message so that it resonates with your audience – no matter the “sexiness” of your initiatives. Use storytelling to make it accessible, appealing and engaging.

Why does it matter?

·      Storytelling is a solution to avoid sharing boring content that nobody will engage with;

·      Storytelling will enhance the authenticity of your efforts;

·      Storytelling will create an emotional connection with your audience.

How to start?

Well, before taking the plunge to craft anything, there are 6 key questions you need to answer. If you fail to answer them properly, you will not be able to create truly legitimate stories.

1)    Am I aligned with my purpose, mission and promise and overall identity?

2)    Am I using the specific vocabulary/wording needed to resonate?

3)    Am I giving enough information, and in a transparent manner?

4)    Am I sharing solid proof?

5)    Is there a gap between my words and my actions?

6)    Can I be held accountable for what I say?

To “do good, to do well”, the opportunities to leverage your social good actions are limitless. If you come from a place of honesty, practising authenticity with a strong sense of integrity, while proving true care towards your audience, it does not matter your company size, industry and budget. All things being equal, you’re taking the best chance to stand out and be trusted.

There is no better time for your company to get this going. Start to write your story before someone else does it for you.

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