How to Use Storytelling to Bring Your ESG Strategy to Life
Here, we offer five essentials for organizations to consider in order to tell a more compelling ESG story.
Let’s face it: In the past year, “ESG” has started to feel like a corporate buzzword.
Pressure from external stakeholders to show measurable progress on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives has spurred brands to make bold commitments and activate ESG strategies. Likewise, ESG reporting (a report of ESG activities and data required for financial disclosures) gained traction with 92% of the S&P 500 publishing Sustainability Reports in 2020 and the EU introducing the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), a policy requiring companies to “disclose information on the way they manage social and environmental challenges.”
So, yes, given this collective shift to outline ambitions, draft agendas and share the latest company data, it’s easy for a concept like ESG to feel overused, overwhelming or even inconsequential. But at its core, brands acting for the causes they believe in are anything but.
A solid ESG strategy is comprised of an ESG ambition (where we want to go) and an ESG agenda (how we will get there). Together they inform the ESG narrative. The ESG narrative is a powerful story or series of stories, that should drive understanding and inspire action, ultimately making your ESG journey real, relevant and resonant to your stakeholders.
Which is why after establishing a sound strategy, brands must ask themselves: What’s the narrative? How can we contribute to a larger conversation? How can our efforts connect with and inspire people?
Here, we offer five essentials for organizations to consider in order to tell a more compelling ESG story.
Go Deeper and Get Specific
Your organization’s ESG strategy will likely cover a broad spectrum of topics, and consequently, the narrative will speak to a variety of initiatives. But just because the broader story encompasses so much, doesn’t mean you have to hit on it all in every single communication. Tetris-ing mentions of all your ESG initiatives at random and throughout every written piece can confuse your audiences and may even minimize the perceived gravity of what you’re working towards. Instead, use individual storytelling touchpoints as opportunities to go deeper on one or two intersecting topics at a time to uncover the human element. You can reference your ESG materiality assessment to help you identify and prioritize the relevant topics your business has committed to.
Giving a specific topic or initiative adequate space and airtime will help you be more intentional with storytelling around key components of your ESG strategy — elevating your ambitions into something tangible rather than just scratching the surface of all your efforts at once.
With that in mind, look for the moments where your ESG initiatives and the issues they address naturally intersect with each other. Those may be the most compelling storytelling opportunities. Take HydroFlask, the brand puts ESG storytelling front and center on its website via its Parks For All program. It spotlights grant recipients across the country, sharing details about what the nonprofits are doing to ensure nature is accessible to all and contextualizes why the company believes everyone should have access to the benefits of nature: “the benefits of nature are mental, physical and social.”
Sincere, emotive messaging helps bring its grant initiative to life by getting to the heart of why what it’s doing matters on a human level — potentially inspiring audiences to get support or apply for a grant themselves.
Know What Your Audiences Want and Expect
Just like any other form of communication, you should modulate your storytelling approach to meet the needs — or expectations — of different audiences. But to do so, you need to understand them. For instance, regulators and investors may be more stimulated by facts and figures, whereas employees, consumers and the broader market will likely connect with stories that demonstrate how your initiatives may show up in their routines, communities, experiences and relationships. Understanding the emotional drivers of these audiences allows you to ground your stories in accessible, human experiences, making your ESG efforts feel real and relatable.
Direct-to-consumer brand Humankind’s messaging consistently emphasizes how people can easily reduce single-use plastic waste simply by using its products in their daily routines. It claims that “you can fight this flow of plastic waste, just by getting ready in the morning,” helping consumers envision its product within the context of their lives. The brand even extends this notion into its nomenclature, naming some of its product offerings the “Dental Routine Bundle” and the “Shower Routine Bundle.”
Oat beverage company Oatly already broke the mold of the milk-alternative (and milk) industry by embodying a challenging, self-aware and even playful voice, but that’s not the only way it stands out among competitors and remains relevant to its audiences. Oatly Stories provides a series of updates about “the work [it’s] doing and the issues [the brand] cares about.” Stories range from deep-dive investigations about whether oat milk truly does taste horrible in tea to interviews with various company founders whose visions for a sustainable and more equitable future align with Oatly’s.
Make it Measurable
Your ESG story is only as powerful as the hard facts that underpin it — audiences crave real, tangible measures to go hand-in-hand with a strong narrative. What steps are you taking toward the causes you believe in? How has that journey progressed over time? And how can you strive to be better?
Here, transparency and humility play surprisingly important roles. Rather than overstate the scope and impact of your ESG efforts, it pays to be candid about the work that has yet to be done and the problems that remain to be solved. Doing so can manage against your brand being charged with “greenwashing” and “virtue signaling.”
People are drawn to authenticity — and they relate to companies that can deliver on their promises, no matter how far out that delivery may appear. As Gen Z consumers enter the market, they are actively seeking out more opportunities for meaningful brand stories. A vulnerable nod to what remains to be done adds a compelling layer to the stories you tell. And it leaves room for a dynamic journey that they can follow along with.
Consider Walmart’s approach to ESG reporting, which strives to create an accessible, transparent way to measure impact and stay accountable. Communications accompanying the report share the findings for any stakeholder to consult, in a way that’s easily digestible. And, on top of that, it clearly lays out the spaces that remain open to improvement in candid terms.
“Substantial improvements in outcomes may be years in the making,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart’s chief sustainability officer, admitted in a July blog post in regard to equity initiatives at the company. “Yet we are encouraged by signs of progress.”
Use Bold Language to Express Your Bold Moves
If you’re making measurable, authentic operational changes or business decisions to deliver your ESG strategy, don’t shy away from language that will excite, inspire and rally people around those efforts.
While it may be easy to lean towards a safer territory with storytelling that doesn’t risk polarizing your audiences, the greatest test of sincerity often lies in how we address personally and emotionally charged issues. Don’t mask your progress or stance in equivocal language that can be interpreted anyway — this is an especially important point for Gen Z employees, who seek out employers who are willing to clearly and confidently advocate for causes they believe in and actively support.
The risk that some of your intended audience won’t agree with your delivery will always be there. But the most powerful brands acknowledge the risk inherent in their activism, and their subsequent storytelling. Even if they know sharing their stance and efforts may not always be a profitable decision, they do so with assurance and aspiration, and then keep on charging ahead.
Patagonia took this to the extreme when it confidently declared: “Earth is now our only shareholder.” Since this courageous business decision, the company will now use the wealth it creates and invest it into fighting the environmental crisis. The action itself is honorable, but the word choice and storytelling are what helped amplify the impact and make it feel real to stakeholders. As Yvon Chouinard, the company’s founder powerfully put it in the announcement: “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’”
Brands don’t have to communicate their stance blindly. They can and should refer to their materiality assessments to get a sense of the causes that resonate saliently to them and to their stakeholders to make informed choices around how they share their progress tactfully.
Keep it Going
A powerful ESG story doesn’t stop with a single campaign, blog post or annual report. It’s not a forced divergence from your brand’s more important objectives. Instead, it’s a living, breathing element of your core identity as a brand. It’s consistent with everything you are and every cause you stand for. And it needs to remain that way over time.
Your story must evolve with the world around it. As new current events and social causes come to light, brands need to look for opportunities to authentically tie them back to their story and keep their narratives relevant.
Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign has been supporting diverse representations of beauty since 2004 — and it has served as an example of how staying true to your core values will never fall out of trend.
Over the years, the campaign has found many different iterations of two key themes: female empowerment and the fight against stereotypes. And this past June, Dove took a powerful stance opposing the overturning of Roe V. Wade, publicly taking to social media to declare: “It’s her body. It should be her choice.”
It’s a powerful message from Dove, precisely because of the messages Dove has put forth over the years around women’s empowerment. With this stand, the brand has shown consistent loyalty to its principles, even in the face of a potentially polarizing topic.
While ESG rightfully continues to gain momentum, it takes more than broad strokes and light touches to make your ESG intentions feel serious and bold.
By investing in the right storytelling strategies, you will not only connect to your audiences’ hearts and minds — you’ll make your important ESG efforts feel committed, real and lasting.
Contact us to learn more about building and communicating an authentic ESG strategy for your organization.