Discovering the Sustainability Story

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Discovering the Sustainability Story

By Edward Wachtman

Fall-Winter 2005-2006

StoryTellingsTM at CompQuest Consulting Inc.

Powerful market research techniques can be used to explore the notion of ‘sustainability’ and create a brand story that stimulates attitudinal and behavioural change. Using the StoryTellingsTM methodology, members of the general public and ‘thought leaders’ (individuals whose expertise and experience gave them intimate knowledge of sustainability) were gathered into small groups and guided through storytelling and brainstorming sessions. These sessions elicited the perceptions and attitudes of participants regarding sustainability and investigated the implications of these findings for action in pursuit of this goal.
A host of similarities were revealed regarding the way that sustainability was discussed by both the ‘thought leaders’ and the general public. Conversations generally fell into one of three major thematic groupings: 1) epistemological (or ‘meaning and being’) issues; 2) technical or scientific issues; and 3) practical or applied issues. Common ideas were woven through these themes by all participants, including the complexity of the meaning of sustainability, trade-offs, education, economic incentives, the role of both the individual and the community, and hope.

Key differences between the two groups, however, reveal the need for varying approaches to sustainability. In particular, ‘thought leaders’ viewed complexity of meaning with regard to sustainability as both desirable and inevitable. The general public, however, preferred a clear understanding of the concept and its implications. Similarly, ‘thought leaders’ focused on epistemological issues and values while the general public preferred to focus on the practical issues associated with implementing sustainability. Finally, the sessions revealed that the expert group believed that they were empowered to impact the future; this was less true for the general public.

StoryTellingsTM sessions were comprised of three phases. During the first phase, the word ‘sustainability’ was used to prompt the brainstorming of ideas and thoughts associated with the word. The second phase involved the development of team stories using the phrase ‘working toward our long term well-being’ as a prompt. Finally, participants were encouraged to develop individual stories during the final, ‘Reflections’ phase.
Especially critical to the development of a sustainability brand is the articulation of a story that reflects the values, emotions, and attitudes of individuals. A brand story is comprised of four parts: themes, plot structure, setting and characters. Several core themes emerged from sessions with both the general public and ‘thought leaders’ including: interconnectivity, reconciliation, community, epiphany, and transformation. The meta theme that transcended the discussions was clearly ‘hope.’ In other words, the sustainability stories created by all groups had an undeniably positive tone, but coloured by a sense of discontent.

The plot structure represents the action of the story, and was comprised of six distinct sequential phases. The story began with a vague sense that ‘something isn’t right’, followed by a triggering event that led to an epiphany, reconciliation, transformation, and ultimately a return to one’s roots accompanied by a sense of responsibility to act. The setting of this story is an imaginary place where the story takes place: a mental landscape that is transitional but hopeful. It is a place of metaphorical re-birth and re-generation. The final element of the story, the characters, included a protagonist who, in this case, was the collective personification of all of us. For the participants, this protagonist was hurried, longing for meaning, and wanting to belong. It is this protagonist that, through a transformative process, becomes an ‘initiate’ of sustainability and therefore is committed to sharing this newfound truth and knowledge.

As a result of using the StoryTellingsTM methodology to develop a sustainability brand story, these critical recommendations can be made to those attempting to stimulate behaviour change:

  • Acknowledge the complexity of the meaning of the word ‘sustainability’

  • Speak of sustainability in terms of themes, plot structure and emotional triggers

  • Emphasize hope, leverage core themes, and acknowledge the turmoil inherent in events that trigger a transformation

  • Position sustainability as a possible panacea for our cultural malaise

  • Acknowledge that the public knows more about sustainability than we often give them credit for

  • Use symbols and imagery that speak at an unconscious, archetypal level

Tactically, this process revealed the importance of speaking about ideas and values with experts, but practical issues with the general public. The importance of community, small steps toward the ultimate sustainability goal, and the role of the individual are key ideas that should be woven into any discussion of sustainability. These tactics may be used to explore visions of sustainability and ultimately trigger behaviour change in support of that vision.

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