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How to Tell Your Company's Sustainability Story


By Nicole Skibola

Building a narrative around a social enterprise is tricky. You need to appeal to the bottom line, convey social/environmental impact, resonate with a variety of different stakeholders, and every team member needs to feel personal passion when they tell the story or make a pitch.

At Centurion Consulting, we began working with a technology-driven sustainable agriculture enterprise in its startup phase last month. (That’s all I can say until they launch officially, but our work with them is a mix of sustainability, economic development, technology, and business model and product design). Going in, we had read a lengthy business plan. We had a sense of what our clients were trying to accomplish, but there were many moving parts and we knew the product was complex. We also gathered that the client team didn’t have a crystal clear understanding of what the product was.

In the old world of business plans, this would be a problem. We, however, saw it as an opportunity to bring the team together to craft a shared narrative. We knew that the only way we could help them to accelerate both their product development and prepare them for telling a cohesive story was through the Running Lean world of product experimentation and validation.

In some ways, not having a clear vision for a product, especially a human driven design product (i.e., one meant to help people around the world who are living in different social/economic/cultural contexts) can be an advantage. When entrepreneurs hatch a brilliant invention, it’s easy to grow attached to the idea for the idea’s sake. Clinging to an idea leads to rationalization. (“Well, Bob didn’t like the product, because he just didn’t get it.”) It becomes the customer’s fault for not adopting the product, not the designer’s fault for not listening to what the customers’ aggregate behavior is telling him/her.

When there is less of an attachment to an initial idea, it could make it easier to embrace the iterative nature of product development.  This is where design thinking has the chance to come in. Think rapid experimentation and prototyping meets empathy driven hypotheses. Translation: Derive the solutions from the customer base, then test them to see if they stick. Don’t hold onto a feature set if the data shows customers aren’t buying it.  Turn back to your customer base and listen for other solutions or features. Keep trying until you can validate these solutions.

Of course the team had some preexisting ideas of what kind of product and business they wanted to build. They were very passionate about some of the topics — economic empowerment, good food, sustainable agricultural practices, to name a few. However, because they didn’t have a product idea completely fleshed out, we had enough space that we were able to lead them through business model and then product model exercises.

A couple of introductory definitions before we get to the rest of the blog:

  • Business Model Canvas (BMC): A business model is the design for the successful operation of a business, identifying revenue sources, customer base, products, and details of financing. The Business Model Canvas (seen below) is a tool to map out the key elements of a successful business model: customer segments, customer relationships, channels, value propositions, key activities, key resources, key partners, costs and revenue.

  • Lean Product Canvas: A spin-off of the BMC, the Lean Product Canvas hones in on the product itself, but within the context of the bigger picture. So only one aspect of the product is the “solution.” The rest of “the product” is the articulated problem as matched to customer segments, the metrics, cost structure, etc. In short, its about the sum of the parts, not the physical solution in isolation. (Read more by Running Lean author Ash Maurya here)

We have used these canvases for a number of projects, ranging from shaping a consulting offering to product design to marketing. They present a highly visual, conceptually driven approach to thinking about a system. Sometimes, only the Lean Canvas is necessary. There is overlap between the two, as you will see. We opted for both because we are guiding our clients toward a product platform play, meaning the product as a whole is guided by the BMC, and component parts are guided by the Lean Canvas. There is no right answer, but we found that this combination worked in this instance.

Regardless, we think that the best place to start upon your first foray into the world of canvassing is with the BMC. Here are a few things to think about when walking through a BMC for the first time.

1. Identify all of your customer segments as PEOPLE

This is really helpful when constructing your narrative. Rather than labeling a customer segment as broadly as “governments,” think who in the government to whom you’ll be selling a product/service. Maybe it’s a procurement official, a ministry of regional and local government official or a trade minister. When you break it down, you will have an easier time articulating what these people find valuable and what their problems are (a deeper dive into problem/solution fit occurs in a Lean Product Canvas but we’ll start here).

For example, a trade minister may value surplus agriculture production that can enter the export market, whereas a minister of the regional and local government may value capacity building an local economic farm growth. When you are in a conversation with these people trying to sell your product or your service, they are going to care about different things. So you need to convey the value of your offering in different ways.

2. Match your PEOPLE (aka Customers) to a Value Proposition

Building on the point above, different people value different things. They have different jobs to be done and thus will purchase an offering (or not) based on how the value of the product is presented to them.

Build out a customer persona before working on the specific value proposition. It might go like this. Bob is the minister of agriculture in X County in Kenya. His oversees farmers and agriculture production. His biggest challenges are x, y, z. He is probably successful at his job if he does a, b, c. Get inside Bob’s head. Who is he, what are his challenges and what do you think his performance metrics are based on. This information could be partially speculative, but should also be based on customer conversations, or extracted from similar persona profiles.

To keep things organized, start with your customer segments using different post-it colors. Make sure that each box in the Canvas matches the segment by post-it … meaning that you need to address every segment in every box. Every customer should have their own value proposition.

3. Craft an overarching narrative

This was big with our clients. There are nine founders, all well developed along their professional paths. They bring a different set of experiences to the table and thus tell their vision and story of the product in a different way. This is especially common when dealing with social enterprises or nonprofits. Leaders are really passionate about their product and have their own set of values that enter the story they tell. Sometimes, essential values of the overarching narrative get lost when there are a number of stories being told. For instance, an operational, boots on the ground leader has a first hand understanding as to why understanding cultural context matters. This becomes a key tenet of the product offering. But the sales team may not understand that, and thus may leave that piece of the story out. If the sales team is talking to someone like a major foundation or a local government and they place no emphasis on context, the story’s value may diminish. It’s not that the piece isn’t there, it’s just that it’s not being told.

We have found that it’s best to have either the head of communications or a consultant (someone neutral / outside of the leadership mix) to interview leaders about the core values surrounding the product. (This is different than the organizational core values, but there may be overlap). That person should collate individual values and integrate them with the broader organizational objective, core values, purpose and operating principles. The concepts that emerge then become points in the story to be told by the individual. There shouldn’t be too many, so the talker can remember them all and artfully integrate them into her/his dialogue.

Closing thought: ITERATE!

The Canvas, the narrative, all should be revisited regularly. Catch yourself if you are pouring over a box on the canvas. Then give yourself permission to let it go, zen style. The truth is, you should be testing, reworking and validating your segments, value propositions — and every other box on the canvas all of the time. The work is never done.

Image credit: Flickr/eric snopel

Nicole Skibola is a principal with Centurion Consulting, a firm dedicated to identifying, addressing, and innovating strategic and operational opportunities around all facets of sustainable development.

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