OgilvyEarth Director of Strategy, Freya Williams, is a member of the Guardian Professional Network. Her article originally appeared in the Guardian.
I’m going to play back to you a conversation I’ve been in more than a handful of times, and in which I’d be willing to bet that many of you have found yourselves at least once.
“We need to talk about sustainability, but without using the actual word ‘sustainability’,” someone says.
“Oh yeah, I hate that word,” someone else chimes in. “Our employees/customers/consumers/I
have no idea what it means.”
“Er, so what can we say?” asks somebody else.
The topic of language and vocabulary is very much on my mind following the Unilever Sustainable Living Lab and as we prepare for the Guardian Sustainable Business and Forum for the Future panel on Better Ways of Doing Business at our New York headquarters this week.
The world finds itself in a period of accelerating change as we seek to redefine the way business operates and its role, goal and purpose in society, not to mention what people expect of business and their relationships with companies and brands.
And as we attempt to articulate these new concepts and new relationships, we’re scrambling to find the words to keep up.
There’s sustainable business, ethical business, environmentally/socially responsible business, resilient business, green business and shared value. Conscious capitalism, conscientious capitalism, new capitalism, sustainable capitalism and collaborative consumption. Sustainable brands, purpose branding, meaningful brands and brands with belief. I’m sure I’ve missed many, and not all of these represent an apples to apples comparison, but you get the point.
After several years of somewhat bankrupt terminology – the now ubiquitous ‘green’ and ‘eco’ spring to mind – this explosion of innovation in language is encouraging insofar as it is a reflection of a transformation in thinking, business and culture. Some of the terms represent breakthrough attempts to articulate powerful new concepts – shared value and collaborative consumption, for example.
But the lack of alignment on a common language can lead to meetings in which some participants are left wondering what exactly they are discussing, while others are talking at cross purposes, and some are trying express ideas for which a name may not yet exist.
This linguistic challenge also makes it hard for professionals to explain what they do.
From a marketer’s standpoint, it makes other things difficult; what questions should we be asking people in research? What brand attributes should we be tracking and what success metrics should we set in place? And, crucially, how on earth do we explain what we are doing to employees and consumers? At OgilvyEarth, defining sustainability or responsible business in terms that can be readily understood to the “man on the street” is at least 60% of our job.
This is often the way with innovation. It’s hard to name what we do not know. But soon, when we get further along on this journey and gain a better sense of what the right path is, it will be important to coalesce around a new set of terms that can be shared, understood and agreed upon by everyone – across business disciplines and stakeholder groups. My creative brief for this language
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would be along the lines of: a clean, elegant term which frames sustainability, responsibility and sound ethics as simply part of business leadership in the 21st century (rather than bolted on as some previous incarnations of the terminology can imply).
I actually think we could do worse than the term The Guardian and Forum for the Future have chosen for next week’s panel: Better Business. It’s simple, clear and hard to argue with. Maybe if you join, we can discuss it.