Business innovation | Qa

Engagement is more than just reacting to consumers

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Don't tell customers what to do!

As a former customer sustainability director, Jake Backus knows a thing or two about how to speak to consumers. The storytelling must be relevant to brand values – and you shouldn’t always rely on research to guide the way, he tells Tom Idle

Why have corporates so far struggled to connect sustainability storytelling to consumers?

Marketing managers – at least for the less nimble brands – have to ask the consumer before they do anything. They research “consumer insights” to guide them on what to do. And is sustainability important at the point of purchase? No, not really. So, this is their permission to not do anything.

Sustainability should be made relevant to the brand in a way that enhances brand attributes, connects with people and adds value, all the way up the supply chain. And so, it shouldn’t even be called sustainability in consumer terms.

Can you always ask the consumer what you should do? No, because they don’t know. You have to show foresight and not rely on just insight.

You were customer sustainability director at Coca-Cola – how did the company approach consumer engagement? Are there any particular secrets to your success in reaching out to so many consumers?

Coca-Cola has a really good understanding of brands and connecting with consumers. What research has revealed is that people are not motivated by doom and gloom, but by being optimistic and fun.

What the company has done really well is to start to tell better the stories about what it does. People who know about the good things a company does are three times more likely to be advocates for the brand. Most sustainability reports are not widely read, but the Coca-Cola Journey website has already had over 36 million unique visits because it makes those stories more meaningful and engaging.

How can business measure their success, or otherwise, in breaking through and helping to affect sustainable living/consumer choices?

Most companies will not see it as their sole role to tell consumers how to live their lives, but if they can articulate what a better, more sustainable lifestyle looks like, then they have an important role to play. 

How do you build that internal business case for engaging consumers about sustainability issues?

Listen first to the objectives and challenges of your internal audience. Don’t sell sustainability; they don’t see it as their job to do it; it’s yours. By understanding what they are wrestling with, you can show the extent to which being more sustainable and engaging consumers does fall within their remit and can be just what they are looking for.

They also need to see results. They need it to be de-risked and they need to see examples of what has already been done. After that, you can leave it to them to do it in their own way, which can often be so much better than we might have done it.

How do consumers now differ from those of previous generations? Do they present more opportunity?

Consumers increasingly want to buy products from companies that share their values. Therefore, companies genuinely need to question what their values are, and how they are honestly being perceived outside of the ivory tower of self-regarding success and fawning agencies. Companies will need to question what their right is to exist – what are they doing which is positive for society, the environment and the economy? The reality is that anything else just won’t be sustainable.

Jake Backus will be speaking at Innovation Forum’s consumer engagement conference on 9th November. For full details
click here.

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The Future of Food

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The Ethical Trade and Human Rights Forum

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