By Aaron Pickering
In Louisiana, a farmer continues her father’s legacy of growing quality rice, making a living by producing a key ingredient for breakfast cereals enjoyed around the world. Meanwhile, in Sierra Leone, 5,000 smallholder farmers have been trained as beekeepers – which will help families pay school tuition for their children.
These stories aren’t from NGOs or the lifestyle section of a local paper. It might be surprising, but they actually come from major corporations: Kellogg, which is working with growers and farmers to limit environmental impacts in its supply chain, and General Mills, which is helping farmers develop sustainable beekeeping businesses in Sierra Leone. Big changes are taking place in the agriculture industry, as some of the world’s largest brands increase their focus on having a positive social, economic and environmental impact, while continuing to grow and produce the food that millions have made a part of their daily lives.
This idea of “sustainable agriculture” is of increasing importance as today – more than ever before – consumers care about where their food comes from. According to a recent study by Trace One, 68 percent of U.S. consumers said they are not provided with enough information about what is in their food and where it comes from. In fact, the vast majority of consumers reported that it is important to know where their food is coming from. At the same time, target consumer groups like Millennials consider sustainability as an important factor in making purchasing decisions. A recent Cone Communications study found that while health and safety and nutritional value remain the most important, 77 percent of Millennials consider product sustainability as an important factor.
Given consumers’ motivations and evolving feelings about food, it makes sense companies like General Mills and Kellogg’s are telling compelling stories about where their products come from and how they’re made. So, what does it take to craft a powerful narrative and develop effective communications about corporate sustainable agriculture efforts? Let’s take a look at two other companies that are doing it well.
- Unilever has set ambitious goals, such as committing to zero-deforestation associated with key ingredients. This is notable, given deforestation is responsible for an estimated 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The company has also partnered with WWF to educate consumers about the issue. Meanwhile, it is supporting smallholder farmers through education and training, underscoring Unilever’s commitment to enhancing livelihoods across its value chain – a key component of the company’s Sustainable Living Plan. And, CEO Paul Polman is a vocal leader in the corporate responsibility space. These are just some of the reasons why Unilever topped GlobeScan’s 2015 sustainability leaders list.
- Stonyfield is a New Hampshire-based organic dairy brand that provides a SourceMap for consumers interested in where their food comes from, allowing them to check out farm conditions and the history of individual yogurt ingredients, such as milk, peaches and pears. The company offers grants to empower the next generation of organic dairy farmers, which support the industry and local economies. Stonyfield also supported the development of farmer-owned processing plants for banana famers in Costa Rica, which can drive local economic growth and increase quality, efficiency and income for farmers.
As companies strive to make progress when it comes to sustainable agriculture, here are seven tips for building a communications strategy that is both effective and compelling:
- Define your core essence. What does the company stand for? What does it believe in? This will become the “red thread” that comes across clearly in all communications and storytelling, across all channels.
- Be authentic. What is the clear vision for how the brand can contribute to making the global agriculture industry more sustainable? Explain how the issues you are addressing are core to the company’s business and long-term success.
- Set ambitious goals for improvement. Whether it’s empowering 5 million women by 2020 (Coca-Cola) or eliminating deforestation for core commodities (Unilever), setting time-bound, science-based and measureable goals will lend credibility and resonate with stakeholders. Not to mention, it makes your work newsworthy.
- Demonstrate executive-level leadership. CEO or c-suite ownership and communications around your sustainable agriculture efforts helps to demonstrate the importance of corporate responsibility efforts for a brand.
- Engage with stakeholders and consumers. Seeking input from the experts on the ground and involving them in campaign planning is crucial from a programmatic perspective, but will also be a key component of authentic storytelling moving forward.
- Make communications both relevant and personal. Once you understand the needs of each stakeholder, make sure to communicate what’s most relevant to them, in a way that makes the issue both personal and urgent. And of course, creative, human and emotive storytelling across all channels is a must.
- Report on progress and communicate your challenges. Setting goals is just the start. What’s most important is reporting on the progress the company is making and being transparent about the challenges you face.
Aaron Pickering is an account director on Cone Communications’ Corporate Communications team with over a decade of experience in strategic public relations, project management and media relations. Aaron advises corporate and nonprofit clients on how to effectively communicate with diverse stakeholders, articulate their vision and build brand awareness. He has worked with companies and organizations across industries and on a range of issues – from labor and human rights to the environment – to tell compelling stories, cultivate media relationships and engage stakeholders to launch strategic public relations campaigns that change minds and drive results. Aaron also teaches as an adjunct professor at The George Washington University.