Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Big firms adopt new voice

April 2010

Large mainstream companies are beginning to use the bright and breezy language of ‘alternative’ businesses when talking about their corporate responsibility programmes, reports a communications expert in the field.

Brendan May, founder of the new Robertsbridge Group consultancy and a sustainability adviser to the global public relations group Weber Shandwick, says big businesses with extensive sustainability programmes are starting to communicate them in the informal manner of pioneers such as The Body Shop, Innocent and Ben & Jerry’s.

‘They’re using the very same language that people like Innocent were using five years ago,’ May told last month’s Base conference in London.

‘There’s an authenticity, lack of pomposity and transparency of communication that seems to be appearing by osmosis into businesses that are a lot more traditional than the newer companies they are emulating.

‘The approach is less formal, more engaging and less text-heavy – and there’s no doubt that newer companies such as The Body Shop have influenced the ways in which older companies are now communicating on sustainability.’

May said one example of a company taking this route is Unilever, which has recently made efforts to project its sustainability programmes in a more appealing way.

This includes using a puppet PG Tips monkey to explain a link-up with the Rainforest Alliance on ethically sourced tea. A well-illustrated section of the company’s UK website begins with the monkey saying: ‘Hurrah! After two years working with our friends at Rainforest Alliance, we’re proud to say that the tea in the nation’s favourite cuppa is now fully certified.’

May also praised Timberland for taking a leaf out of the pioneers’ book by introducing a brighter, more innovative approach to the way it communicates, including in its annual CSR report.

He told EP the trend was part of an acknowledgment that companies must emphasise their social and environmental credentials in a more lively way than they might tackle other areas.  ‘All the big companies are mainstreaming sustainability, and once you do that on a massive scale you want to bring the story to life in a very accessible and exciting way,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be honest, open and fun. That means talking to people in a real way, rather than adopting marketing speak – which is something companies like The Body Shop have done well.’

May said a more down-to-earth, transparent approach helps to communicate better the nuances of complex CSR programmes. ‘It’s hard for the big companies to be like that, but they are importing the lessons of those new brands and taking it on board.’

Rachel Woods, director of the communications consultancy Hill & Knowlton, said the trend was to be welcomed. ‘Compelling storytelling has always been an essential aspect of corporate responsibility, and organizations need to make their policies and practices understandable to all audiences, from expert special interest groups to the man on the street,’ she said.

‘But companies must talk in their own language. Their words and tone of voice must feel real.  Anything too forced just looks and sounds false.’

Robertsbridge Group | Global | Communication

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