3 Ways to Improve Your B2B Sustainability Messaging

Episode 196

August 9, 2022

Sustainability is a corporate-led initiative, but marketers are often the ones refining the messaging to resonate with customers. In this episode of The Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman discuss the common pitfalls of sustainability messaging that will either get it lost in the competitive shuffle or be ignored by the sales team. We also explore how to overcome those challenges so that internal and external stakeholders understand how your sustainability initiatives impact them.

3 Ways to Improve Your B2B Sustainability Messaging Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir? 

Carman Pirie: I am doing well. I’m doing well. Delighted to be here once again. And how are you making out? How are you doing? 

Jeff White: I’m doing great. I’m doing great. Looking forward to some vacation, you know? In a little bit. I think everybody should get some time off. 

Carman Pirie: There you go. I must say that is one of the very interesting things about working on both sides of the Atlantic, is that the clientele in Europe, they kind of get a… They get that vacation thing a little bit better than those of us over here on-

Jeff White: They have it figured out. They have it figured out. Yeah. No, I was speaking with someone in Copenhagen this morning and he’s like, “Yes, most of us are on vacation this month, but I am working from home.” 

Carman Pirie: Is that your Danish accent? 

Jeff White: I don’t know. I might need to edit that out. I think I said I’d invite him on the podcast at some point. 

Carman Pirie: And if it doesn’t match, then you’re-

Jeff White: No, no. It’s not good. No disrespect meant. I do voices badly and they’re all the same. 

Carman Pirie: There’s a lot of truth to that. 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, it is. 

Carman Pirie: It’s true. 

Jeff White: Is it Irish? Is it Indian? Nobody knows. 

Carman Pirie: But seriously, there is… I think one thing that we can probably learn from over here is to maybe just take a bit more vacation, so there’s the first bit of free advice to our listeners today. 

Jeff White: Yes. Also, ride a bicycle. 

Carman Pirie: And take a holiday. Yes. 

Jeff White: Yeah. There we go. The path to happiness. 

Carman Pirie: Indeed. Indeed. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today. We’re here to talk about… We’re just looking to get ourselves in trouble, I think, because I think I said to you, Jeff, in the preparation for today’s show that it feels to me like there’s almost two types of manufacturing marketers. There’s those that are currently tasked with trying to shape the sustainability message for their organization, and then there are those that are about to be. 

Jeff White: There’s no in between. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. And I don’t know, I guess first things first, we should acknowledge that this is not a new thing. I mean, my goodness. Some of the leaders in this space, if we think of Interface Carpets or what have you. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Interface Floor. 

Carman Pirie: As an example, my goodness, that’s 20 or 30 years old, that story now, so-

Jeff White: Yeah. I met the CEO at an Architects Nova Scotia talk he was giving about that very thing at least 15 years ago. I think Ray has passed on now, but it was a very… You know, it was a message whose time has come 15, 20 years ago, and here we are still kind of finding ways to talk about it. 

Carman Pirie: Well, and I think because many people in the manufacturing marketing space are marketing to other manufacturers. In the B2B manufacturing space, they may be a bit removed from end consumers, and as a result maybe the pressure to have a sustainability message and commitment, et cetera, hasn’t been maybe quite as pronounced. 

Jeff White: Or maybe it’s so pronounced in your industry that everybody’s saying the same thing. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. I guess I was just trying to think of like why is it that people are just being tasked with this now, you know? Versus like 20 years ago. But maybe it’s just the fact that it’s an ever-evolving thing, as well. But nevertheless-

Jeff White: Maybe a bit of a tangent, but how much do you think current happenings from a climate perspective, and heat perspective, and all of that, here we are in the summer of 2022, with wildfires raging across Europe and other places. Is it just more on people’s minds? 

Carman Pirie: I mean, I have no data to support if that’s true or not, but maybe, right? But nevertheless, I mean that is the requirement. Many marketers, face it, they kind of have this… in some ways a corporate sustainability message and commitment that needs to be communicated in some way, be it to investors, other stakeholders, employees, et cetera, and it’s the marketer’s job to think about how, I guess, that resonates beyond just the company itself to the customers. And that’s where I think a lot of kind of people are challenged, right? 

Jeff White: I think so. Yeah. And I think too, don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that environmental factors shouldn’t be considered, of course. It’s just not whether or not you should be talking about it or how you should be talking about it. I think given where the planet is today, I think we’re firmly in support of ensuring we do all have better environmental practices. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I don’t think being anti-earth is a really great position, and that’s not what we’re trying to communicate here, but I do think as marketers sometimes we need to allow ourselves to just be kind of honest with ourselves about what our job is, which-

Jeff White: Dispassionate. 

Carman Pirie: Our job in this moment isn’t to save the planet. Our job is to talk about what we’re doing in that vein in a way that supports the business goals of the firm. And you know, I’m not saying that you-

Jeff White: While slightly cynical, is certainly accurate. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Well, you know, I’m not saying I’m in support of greenwashing or anything like that. I’m just trying to be very matter of fact. This is what we’re dealing with, and this is essentially the assignment, if you will. So, I guess what are some of the dynamics of this challenge? As we think about it, I suppose maybe first things first is like there’s a lot of people that are… They may look around to their competitors and they see really everybody kind of saying the same thing, as you mentioned. Everybody’s singing from the same song sheet when it comes to sustainability. Or you know, maybe there’s some competitor that has a bit of more of a leadership position or what have you. I think it’s just kind of maybe an interesting positioning choice you need to make. 

Is this sustainability message something that is a leading reason as to why people ought to choose your company or are you… I don’t know, Jeff. Do you think it’s more like are you playing offense or defense? Does that make sense? 

Jeff White: Yeah. I think it really does and I think… You know, there are probably a few industries left where you can still choose to be the leader and have an opportunity to come out ahead, where there may not be any sustainability leader brand in your category. That could exist still. It seems unlikely but it’s possible. 

Carman Pirie: Well, I think we’ve seen that in a number of categories, actually, where there’s a bunch of people that are kind of playing the game halfway, but nobody’s really full out. Yeah. 

Jeff White: Nobody’s really stepped up. Yeah. I think, though, in most categories of manufacturing, most categories of anything, if there is somebody who appears to be leading, are you going to be able to out-green them? Nobody’s gonna unseat Patagonia in the outerwear category as the more sustainable option, or the company that thinks about the earth harder than Yvon Chouinard does. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s an interesting example to bring up. Obviously, a very B2C example, and everybody can kind of… But I think it’s a useful example for our B2B manufacturing folks, because I guess if you introduced a new outdoor brand tomorrow that by the numbers was more sustainable than Patagonia, like was by all accounts, environmentalists would agree, this company’s better than Patagonia. Just imagine if that existed and they sell all the same stuff. Even if somebody could get there, you’d have an awfully hard time convincing the market of it, I bet. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Unseating that leader, I mean, you’ve always beat the drum of there can only be one. One brand in a category that stands out as a lead. You know, Volvo is the safety leader. You have to change the path in order to become a leader in a similar category, so you have to think of a different type of product or change the messaging. I think one of the examples you’ve used before when chatting with our clients, you can’t out-Crest Crest or out-Colgate Colgate, so Sensodyne had to be about not clean teeth, not dentist recommended, but deals with sensitivity issues. Even though-

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s a different category. They had to not choose to play in the toothpaste category, but rather play in the sensitive teeth category, which… And then they’re number one with a bullet, and then good luck as Crest introduces, and they have, and Colgate, and all the others. They all have sensitive teeth brands, but it doesn’t really resonate in the same way that Sensodyne does. 

Jeff White: No, but they have to be in. They have to compete in the category, though, which is interesting, and that kind of goes back to what you were saying, is that no matter what category you’re in, you’re probably going to have to have some kind of sustainability message. You just need to choose where it’s gonna sit and how important it is to your brand. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Maybe even as we were talking about the toothpaste, it reminded me of kind of almost of electric cars, like Tesla versus all the mainstream brands that now, of course, have to have electric options, but… And I’m not a Tesla fanboy by any stretch of the imagination, but they-

Jeff White: No question they own electric car. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly. 

Jeff White: Electric car as a sentiment is Tesla. 

Carman Pirie: As a category. Yeah. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: And everybody else is catching up, like they kind of… They Sensodyned it, you know? The only difference there is everybody does eventually have to move to electric, whereas everybody doesn’t have to eventually move to only producing sensitive teeth toothpaste. 

Jeff White: Sure. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: But now we’re way down a tangent. But I guess the lesson here or the challenge that we see is like, okay, you gotta almost in some way decide are you playing offense or defense. Do you want this to be the key pillar or is it just a bit more of a supporting component to your value prop? And that probably will drive some aspects of your decision making here. 

Jeff White: I think so too, and I think if you are choosing to be that leader, it’s probably not just going to be a marketing-led initiative. Like this needs to be central to the identity of the entire firm. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think that’s often the case, right? When you see those people. Interface would be a great example of that. Leader in their category around sustainability and that started from the top and went all the way through the firm. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And measured. I think they were net zero before anyone even knew what that was. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly. Exactly. I think there are a couple of other things, I suppose. One thing I’ve seen with B2B manufacturers, sometimes when it comes to sustainability there seems to… There can sometimes be a disconnect internally versus externally. I guess what I mean by that is a lot of them have done some great work in making their operations more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, greening their operations if you will. Some have gone so far as to stand up sustainability departments or divisions that really try to take a leading role in how to advance not just their firm but their category from a sustainability of operations perspective. 

And it’s surprising… Well, it’s not surprising. It’s just kind of interesting, I guess to me, how often that bumps up against a sales organization that says, “I’m not sure customers care.” And they’re oftentimes getting told to… You know, this has to be part of the sales message. And the salespeople are kind of, frankly, secretly just ignoring it. Because they don’t think it resonates at all with who they’re selling to. 

Jeff White: This kind of goes back to our previous episode around don’t talk to my customer. You know, it’s like if you haven’t talked to your customer, or your customer’s customer, or the sales team, you’re not gonna find out whether or not this is a thing that actually matters. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. And I also kind of wonder if it’s a matter if the real good advice here is you can’t wait for your customers to care. Like we said, you could choose to be anti-earth, but that’s probably not a great idea. It seems like you maybe ought not to wait for your customers to care either, especially those that are taking a leadership position certainly aren’t going to wait for their customers to care. 

Jeff White: No. And I think they’re also telling them why they should. And maybe that’s a bit of the difference of how… You know, if your sales team is saying, “I don’t think our customers really care how we use 2% less water in manufacturing something than our competitors,” but they may care when you tell them why that matters towards their sustainability goals, or their… You know, what their revenue goals are, and how maybe you’re doing research into it. I don’t know. I mean, it seems like there’s potential to kind of create the category for yourself in that way. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Well, I think that’s really the job that we’re talking about here, isn’t it, is like, “Oh, well, how do you take then that internal sustainability commitment and turn it into something that is a source of competitive advantage in some way, shape, or form?” And part of that is it probably ought to be able to be communicated to customers via the sales team with some level of authenticity and enthusiasm. 

Jeff White: Yeah. For sure. 

Carman Pirie: Let’s think about that a little bit. What do we need to be mindful of in trying to craft and articulate a sustainability position or a sustainability message as a B2B manufacturing marketer? What does that kind of look like? I don’t know. I think I have probably like three things, if I may. 

Jeff White: I think you could. 

Carman Pirie: All right. Well, I think one thing to keep in mind is that… One thing I’ve seen far too much of are marketers kind of leaning too heavily on awards, certifications-

Jeff White: Especially certifications. I mean, because anybody who can meet certain criteria can get one of those. I think back to when I was buying a lot of paper as a graphic designer, like a couple decades ago, and for a while FSC certified paper was where you went in order to show that the brand that you were representing was sustainable and all of that. Again, trying to think of what your customer’s customer wants, and for a while there was certainly a lot of… The entire back half of many brochures had a message about how this paper is FSC certified and helped you meet your commitments to the environment. And then all of a sudden every paper company was FSC certified, and then every printer was FSC certified, and it just didn’t make any difference anymore, like… You know, if you’re at the very beginning of this kind of thing, I think you might be able to rely on those sorts of opportunities more. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. But if you’re the kind of organization that’s going to be at the leading edge of those kinds of opportunities, chances are you’re leading in this space anyway, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. You can’t put those in the window. It’s almost like the Better Business Bureau signs at a convenience store or something. You just can’t put that in the window and think, “Well, we’ve got that covered.” At best, I think these ought to be considered kind of more like the supporting reasons to believe. And so, okay, so now that we’ve beat up the certification bit a little-

Jeff White: Let’s think awards. 

Carman Pirie: I think the next thing is maybe a little bit harder to successfully communicate, but I’ll give it a try. I think first things first, when looking at your sustainability commitment as an organization and trying to get it to match up with or resonate with your customers in some greater way, I’d say the table stakes of that is go into a cross-section of your customers, identify any of their expressed sustainability commitments, values, et cetera, that have been articulated at a corporate level, and you ought to find a way for your sustainability commitments to work in support of theirs, I guess. And that’s not that hard. You know, if somebody has a commitment to have less waste in their operations, they want to reduce 50% of waste in their operations by 2030, and you are reducing waste in your operations, well then the follow-on effect is that you’re helping them achieve their sustainability objective, right?

Jeff White: Yeah. And often cases, those sorts of things are measurable too. You know, they’re measuring how much waste they’re outputting and how much it’s decreased, and you can, as part of their supply chain, can say, “Well, by decreasing ours by 50%, based on this, how much you buy from us, then here’s how that’s impacted your goals.” 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. So then, you know, I think… If that’s the table stakes, I think the place to try to get to if we could is how can your sustainability commitments and activities more directly link to your client’s revenue activities? Like how does you being environmentally friendly help your customer make more money versus help your customer be more environmentally friendly? There have been a few times in my work in this space when I feel like we’ve reached that level and it’s kind of rare air, I think, but when you do it really helps… All of a sudden those barriers to the salespeople actually bringing it up in a sales conversation go away. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Right? Because now all of a sudden it’s connected to money. It’s not just connected to an environmental message, per se. 

Jeff White: Do you think that’s easier to do on inputs or outputs? In terms of what benefit it’s going to have to your customer. So, is it going to be that your customer is spending less money or earning more money? Is it easier to sell one over the other, do you think? 

Carman Pirie: I think it’s easier to convince people of a cost savings than a possible future upside, I suppose, because it always feels more concrete. 

Jeff White: We were talking a bit about an example, how we might be able to describe this, and it’s not a client example or anything like that, but we were looking at packaging from an aluminum can perspective versus what-

Carman Pirie: We’re trying the contrast of a glass as an example, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. For a beer producer or something like that. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I wish we could use… NDAs are what they are. I wish we could use a client example in this moment because there’s… It would make better sense, actually, but I think people listening can hopefully connect the dots to say, “Okay. It’s one thing to connect to the sustainability commitments of my client. But how do I turn that around and actually connect to their sustainability?” Or sorry, to their revenue goals of that client, or the business goals of that client that reach beyond the sustainability components of it. 

So, yeah, so I guess that… This will be a good example, like that hard to communicate thing will be a good example as to why the next point I raise is true, which is to say simple always wins over complicated messages, especially in this space. You know, we see it time and again, whether it’s the old plastic rings that were shown on the necks of ducks or what have you in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or more recently the lump of plastic in the north Pacific Ocean. 

Jeff White: The ozone in the ‘80s and ‘90s for that matter. Manufacturers of propellants. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. I suppose… Yeah. These were easy things to point to in some way. Can’t really point to a hole in the ozone but you can-

Jeff White: They did, though. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s true. Yeah. But you know, so the plastic in the ocean thing I think is a great example, like it’s really hard. For instance, if you had an argument that suggested that plastic straws were better for the environment than paper straws because of this complex total cost to the environment type of calculation, like let’s just assume that exists and that you have that. So, it’s scientifically proven that the plastic straw is better than a paper straw. You can’t sell that message against… in a world where everybody’s just thinking about the hump of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: There’s no kind of market for that nuanced total cost type of message. I find it’s an area where we often go in sustainability messaging. Oftentimes, those sustainability departments that I mentioned earlier, part of what they’re asked to do is basically look at the totality of the environmental impact of their operations and reduce their overall total impact, and that can lead to a lot of ands in the explanation. We do this, and that, and that, and that, and, and, and, and this is why it’s better, and you’ve lost everybody after the first and. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And it also probably feels like you’re reaching somewhat. 

Carman Pirie: I guess. So, it could be… I guess that’s the challenge. I’m not gonna suggest that it’s easier for our listeners, but it’s like how do you wrap up the sustainability positioning or message in a manner that is frankly just simple and clicks with people without them having to do too much internal math. And that might be the hardest part of all. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And I think that actually really is one of the most difficult things about landing not just on a message but on a reason for doing it that makes sense financially, that makes sense from a messaging standpoint, like there’s a lot of things that have to line up in order for this to be successful as a position. Especially if you’re trying to compete with others that are also saying similar things. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I think for most listeners this is not the position that they’re positioning the brand around. This is just simply basically they’re structuring messaging around their commitments in this. 

Jeff White: Yeah. But there would be brands that do position around that, for sure. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. No question. So, yeah, I guess don’t lean too heavily on those certifications. Find a way to try to move past that connection to sustainability messaging and commitments of your clients and get more directly connected to how you achieving your environmental goals will actually help them achieve their business goals. If we can get there, then that’s rare air indeed, and the icing on that cake would be if you could communicate it simply versus extensive and nuanced scientific messaging. 

Jeff White: Nobody likes math. 

Carman Pirie: No. No. 

Jeff White: Not with their marketing. 

Carman Pirie: So, I guess there you have it. I’m not saying it’s an easy assignment but it’s the one you got. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And I think there’s a lot of people who are considering this right now, so thanks very much. It’s been an interesting conversation. 

Carman Pirie: Thank you. It’s been great. Cheers. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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Carman Pirie & Jeff White

Principals at Kula Partners

At Kula Partners, Carman serves as lead marketing and sales counsel to the firm’s diverse range of North American manufacturing clients. His unique insights and distaste for the ordinary have earned him a Gold Award for Media Innovation from Marketing Magazine and Kula Partners—Canada’s first Platinum HubSpot agency—has been recognized as a top lead generator among HubSpot partners.
A User Experience (UX) and usability expert, Jeff began building sites for the web over 25 years ago. He leads the design and development practice at Kula Partners, Canada’s first Platinum HubSpot Partner agency. A passionate advocate for usability and an open web that is accessible to everyone, Jeff frequently speaks on web design, usability, accessibility, marketing and sales at events such as HubSpot’s Inbound conference.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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