Q&A with a Story Guru: Park Howell: Sustainable Storytelling Takes Green Business Practices to a Higher Place

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See a photo of Park, his bio, and Part 1 of this Q&A.


Q&A with Park Howell, Question 2:

Q: You use the term “sustainable storytelling.” How do you define the term, and what’s your favorite example of sustainable storytelling?

A: I started my blog with the title, “A Brighter Shade of Green Marketing.” However, about six months into writing it, I realized that green marketing was too limiting. Being planet-friendly has a lot more dimensions to it than just being green.

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“Sustainable Storytelling” to me is about taking green business practices to a higher place beyond just the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. I prefer to add process and peril to those three “P’s,” which truly leads to sustainability. Most of this doctrine has come to me from Adam Werbach’s book, Strategy for Sustainability, and Derrick Main’s work with GreenNurture.
All of this is featured in an article I wrote for the February issue of O’Dwyer’s P.R. magazine about the state of green marketing from a communicator’s point-of-view:
Being “Green” is not a sustainable brand differentiator
Park Howell, President, Park&Co, a Phoenix-based sustainable marketing firm
It used to be cool to smoke. It was a personal statement: a brand differentiator.
People didn’t think twice about polluting their bodies by puffing on tumor-causing cigarettes. Still today, the stench permeates smoker’s clothes, cars and homes. Fingernails turn brown, lips crack, healthy skin becomes ashen, and lungs heave with the slightest exertion.
The act of smoking is so insidious, it even risks loved ones through disease caused by second hand smoke.
The filthy habit that once separated the elite from the middle class has become stigmatized in our society, primarily due to massive education about its harmful effects through campaigns like The Truth.
“Tobacco companies’ products kill nearly 37,000 people every month. That’s more lives thrown away than there are public garbage cans in New York city.”

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Like nonsmokers, with the benefit of education, hindsight and self-preservation, more and more companies are making themselves and their communities healthier through green practices. They have realized that it’s not sustainable to keep polluting our waterways, ravaging natural resources, and producing products harmful to the world.
A perfect storm of external forces, including the global recession, an upswing in corporate social responsibility initiatives, supply chain process improvement, and a crescendo of voices in environmental education have helped satiate toxic business practices and promote more sustainable organizational behaviors. In fact, they have become key to survival.
Companies are now trumpeting their newfound green exploits like jittery chain smokers that are resolutely kicking the habit. The whole world seems to be in one big Kumbaya for green. Which is a good thing. It’s just no longer a differentiator.
One of the first areas marketing departments started jumping on the green bandwagon was by sprouting leaves on logos. Logo design is about capturing the iconic brand essence of a person, product, company or cause. This may be the first time in the history of advertising that marketers are singularly focused on a simple act of being responsible as a brand, and not the company’s collective character. “Green this” and “Eco that” have become the calling cards of corporations so numerous that they all sound the same. Just explore any blog about green logos, or how to create them, and ask yourself if green isn’t the new color for vanilla.
Communication professionals are missing the big picture. Being “green” is only one element of being sustainable. Even your customers know that. In the “State of Green Business 2010” report, Joel Makower of GreenBiz.com states:
“Consumers want products that aren’t just greener, but better — that offer some kind of personal benefit, whether they’re cheaper to buy or own, have enhanced features or higher performance, are more convenient, less wasteful, healthier for their families, or simply cool.”
Is your green marketing approachable, believable and doable?

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A great measure of your approach to sustainability and how it is reflected in your green marketing is whether your mission and message are approachable, believable and doable. One of the world’s largest snack-food manufacturers, Frito-Lay, has done a remarkable job of marrying its SunChips brand to sustainability
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SunChips is a whole-grain snack that was launched in 1991, and has experienced phenomenal growth (about 20% per year). Earlier this decade Frito-Lay recognized the growing intersection among its consumers’ concerns for their health and the health of the planet.
SunChips marketers know that consumers want a tangible, functional benefit (the healthy food snack) with a green benefit. So sustainability became core to their business strategy. Their efforts started in 2007 and they knew they couldn’t do it overnight. They managed expectations and curbed any whiff of greenwashing by branding this initiative, “One small step at a time.” Their efforts include:
  • Purchasing renewable energy credits to offset its energy needs
  • Using solar power at its Modesto plant
  • Reducing the environmental impact of its packaging by introducing a fully biodegradable chip bag in 2010
  • Supporting sustainability initiatives, such as helping to rebuild National Geographic, then invited customers to come up with the best Earth-saving idea. These ideas were collected on the website, The Green Effect, and each of the five winners received $20,000 to put their idea into action.
  • Noisy bag aside, SunChips is a remarkable example of all three legs of our green marketing stool. The “tangible” healthy qualities of its product are very approachable, and therefore make the larger brand approachable. Powering their plants with solar energy and creating biodegradable packaging make Frito-Lay’s green efforts with SunChips all the more “believable” with no fear of greenwashing. Engaging its customers in their “One small step at a time” initiative makes it all very “doable.”
    Here are seven other examples of organizations that have made their brand positioning much more sustainable by turning their green marketing into wholistic movements for the greater good.
    If you’re touting green, imagine yourself as a smoker who has recently quit. How are you enhancing your health? Have you become a jogger, an avid 10k competitor, marathoner, ironman? Just being a nonsmoker — or being green — for practical health reasons is admirable, but not that cool of a differentiator.

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