Why does good work make bad stories?

Why does good work make bad stories?
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Apple’s recent announcement that it now uses 100% renewable energy sources to power its data centres is a familiar release in an ongoing flurry of claims made by large multinationals, who are under increasing pressure to show how they are reducing their impact on the planet, and diminishing their dependence on scarce resources.

Many of these moves follow external criticism. The late Steve Jobs called a 2009 Greenpeace report “painful” and said it motivated Apple to make changes – suggesting that corporate conscience often needs to be bullied into existence.

Of course, what is happening at Apple is repeated elsewhere. A dilemma facing any marketer with an emerging conscience is how to seek growth for their business and build love for their brands without trashing the planet.

For most brands, this is about highlighting the changes they’ve made to their material choices, their manufacturing processes, their energy consumption or their waste practices. Most times, these stories live in a distant section of a corporate website dedicated to responsibility or sustainability. Increasingly and unfortunately, they make it out into the world in a terrible sub-genre: sustainable advertising.

I am continually amazed by brands that spend millions creating their identity and voice, outlining their specific role and value to people, and then when it comes to talking about sustainability it’s like they forgot everything they know. Logos turn green, hands hold a planet, leaves sprout from unlikely places, water rushes through streams as they dip into a shared and narrow bucket of imagery.

There are a couple of things going on here. The first is that for the majority of brands, any sustainability story is at best in compensation and at worst in conflict with the brand’s main business and purpose. Apple can boast about its data centres all it likes, but we know that its business is built on rapidly obsolete hardware. So, there is a disconnect or even a dishonesty that any wholesome press release or shiny green communications can’t hide.

The second is that brands aren’t very good about talking about being good.  They’re great at being funny, irreverent, surprising, sarcastic, glamorous, beautiful, in fact almost anything apart from being good. 

So, another dilemma: as your business continues to do good work, how do you share these stories without sounding smug or just dull? And how do you do it in a way that actually makes people care? Because, despite the millions of dollars pouring into sustainable communications, there’s little evidence it is connecting with a mainstream audience. 

While it is important that multinationals take steps to reduce their impact on the planet, this in itself is not interesting to most people. Most people don’t spend their days wondering which is the correct recycling bin for glass, or having conversations about their re-usable shopping bags or compostable packaging. They’re asking the big questions. What are my friends up to?  How can I be hot when I’m pregnant like Kim Kardashian? When is Apple going to release a watch? How am I going to lose those extra five pounds?

If you look at the things that inspire and move people, that represent the pinnacle of human potential, you don’t see much sustainability. You see a desire for transformation, for variety, surprise, rapid iteration and innovation. This is a time of movement and improvement, of energy, of sociability, of hedonism, of transformation. Even humour.

How does sustainability fit in a world like this?

It feels that there are a few options here. The first is for brands to tackle human nature and desire head on. A few brands are brave enough to do this. Camper’s  ‘Walk, Don’t Run’, or the Slow Food Movement both speak to a desire to take a time out from the world’s relentless velocity. But this won’t work for most people. Most of us are never going to slow down.

A second option is to better align your stories of good behaviour with your overall brand voice. Nike does a good job of this. When it talks about reducing waste or recycling bottles to make football jerseys, it loses none of its swagger and competitive attitude. “One shoe does good, the other shoe kicks ass,” states an ad for Nike Free that uses environmentally preferred rubber. 

Traditionally, sustainability has been seen in terms of compromise – the good feeling you have from making the right choice compensates for the loss in cleaning efficacy, increase in toilet paper scratchiness, or plain ugliness.

Nike presents an alternative route: where sustainable practices lead to better performance, and a radical new aesthetic. This points towards a third path, where there is no gap between a brand’s business and their stories of goodness, where a better experience for the user goes hand in hand with less environmental impact.

Companies like Nest offer a glimpse of a future where goodness and responsibility are baked into all companies’ core offerings. Founded by two ex-Apple employees, Nest transformed the thermostat from a beige box into an object of desire (with a correspondingly hefty price-point). But Nest also minimises energy use and therefore lowers your home energy bills.

Or Tesla. Although it’s only just approaching profitability, it offers a model for future brands to aspire to. While most electric cars feel like you’re sacrificing money and abandoning taste in order to have a mediocre driving experience, Tesla shows that driving electric cars can be more like piloting a spaceship. This is a brand with a mission to wean us off our addiction to petrol, but there’s no crunchiness here, no whispering brooks or chirping birds. Led by a guy who’s also planning a colony on Mars, Tesla feels like it’s channeling the future.

The best bit of marketing for Tesla? The Superchargers: public charging stations that resemble the Obelisk of Light from Command & Conquer. Launched with the line ‘Drive for free, forever, on sunlight’, this is goodness fuelled by revolutionary fervor and space-age fabrication.

This is the kind of stuff that can take on a limited edition Kim Kardashian iWatch, and it’s the only way we can breach the green gap: by creating products and services that are more astonishing, provocative and beautiful than the less sustainable alternatives.

Nick Barham is global director at Wieden+Kennedy Tomorrow. This World View first appeared in B&T magazine on April 26. 

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