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Your company’s sustainability story needs a powerful strategic narrative

mousetrap with cheese

Have you heard the saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”? The theory is that all you need to do is produce something innovative and people will come running to buy it. But that’s simply not true – as many businesses know.

In fact, there are over 5,000 patents registered for mousetrap designs – and lots more that don’t get registered for one reason or another. To become a success, your innovation needs a powerful, well-structured story – what we call a “strategic narrative” – and the exact same goes for sustainability innovations, too.

Innovating for the SDGs

In a few short years, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have managed to stake their claim at the center of the business strategies of many of the world’s leading companies, from Unilever to Novozymes. These large, successful companies are now working to change their impact on our world, and to create new products and services that deliver on one or more of the 17 goals.

Smaller, lesser known companies have also joined the effort – with 13 businesses in Denmark getting a helping hand through the UNDP’s new SDG Accelerator programme. Founder Stine Kirstein Junge shares more about the programme in this interview about SDGs and storytelling.

Energize the message

A strategic narrative clearly articulates your brand story and points of difference. It gets everyone on the same page. It energizes the messaging. And it brings your brand personality to life.

For sustainability innovations, a strategic narrative’s starting point is most likely to be one or more of the SDGs. For example, your company may have invented a new way of extracting water from stones. And the most obvious starting point would be goal number 6: Clean water and sanitation.

So your strategic narrative might start something like: “Scarcity of water is one of the biggest challenges facing our world. That’s why we’ve spent three years and five million dollars to develop…”

Seem too easy? It probably is.

With the above approach, you’ll likely end up telling pretty much the same story, in the same way, as every other company tackling goal number 6. Your precious innovation risks becoming just another mousetrap, lost in a sea of similarity with nothing differentiating you from your competitors. And with consumers seeing no clear reason to choose your product.

Turn up the volume

More power is needed, both verbally and visually. Your company’s story needs to motivate both internal and external stakeholders, in order to bring all the benefits of your sustainability invention to a world that could really do with some help.

And it’s likely that your company could also do with some help pulling together a powerful strategic narrative. An experienced sustainability storyteller will guide you to think about:

  • The problem the innovation is able to solve – or the opportunity it opens up
  • Why solving this problem or seizing this opportunity is so important to the world and to your company
  • What the company does, or is trying to do, about the problem/opportunity
  • Which SDGs your company is working towards
  • What makes the innovation (and your company) unique in the marketplace
  • A clear, compelling value proposition
  • Key messages that should be consistently delivered following communication of the value proposition
  • The creative Big Idea (expressed in words to support the later creation of visuals or ad concepts)
  • Reasons to believe your claims about the effect and functionalities
  • Where you plan to take things next – and why that makes your company a smart choice as a partner for the future

Before engaging an external storyteller, check that they know how to position sustainability stories. Do they understand the UN SDGs and the greater UN Global Compact? How in touch are they with good sustainability reporting practices? And, not least, what do they know about the broad range of technologies and ideas that are already aimed at delivering to the 17 goals?

Super-sized – with passion

Start by thinking as big as you can, then pick the winning ideas and bring the best of them closer in line with the realities of technology, market access and scale. And don’t forget one key element: passion.

I’ve been privileged to help company after company in the UN SDG Accelerator programme construct strategic narratives around their sustainability innovations. One thing truly stands out with all of them – the passion they bring to each project. Passion drives people to innovate – and including passion in the stories you tell about your sustainability initiatives is crucial to their success.

The companies participating in SDG Accelerator haven’t just created another mousetrap, they want their bold ideas to actually change the world – and powerful strategic narratives are going to help them do it.

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Jonathan Winch

I’m Jonathan Winch, partner at cylindr BBN and a B2B marketing enthusiast. I've participated as a strategic and creative resource in the marketing and communication sphere for over 25 years, making contributions to the strategies and communications of companies of all sizes, the best known of which include Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Danisco, GN ReSound, Hempel, Nokia Siemens Networks, LEGO, Coloplast, and Johnson & Johnson. My mission? To help B2B companies make the most of the value they create for the world. My hobby: Nutritional science, particularly sports nutrition.