The European edition of .future examined 50 top European companies (included in the STOXX Europe 50 index) to track trends in sustainability communications and storytelling from firms that are at the centre of attention for financial markets and other stakeholders.
The .future model assesses how well companies engage on sustainability themes by combining two elements:
Content with substance based not only on a structured process to manage material impacts but also a future oriented vision and agenda for change.
Engaging the user-stakeholder in a way that shows how the business is meeting its societal responsibilities and takes part in the wider conversation about a better future.
Credibility is rooted in communications that exploits the best of digital to engage the user but is grounded in transparency and a rigorous, strategic approach.
The right balance between “What” and “How” in Europe
The European results are encouraging and show a good balance between what companies have to say (average score 51% of max in Substance) and how they tell it (49% average score in Distinctiveness).
In Substance, almost all companies have the core ESG information in place – from climate change to diversity – but deeper content on strategy, performance and stakeholder dialogue can be harder to come across. Storytelling is somewhat weaker, especially in terms of talking about the broader sustainability agenda.
Connecting sustainability-related information across the digital ecosystem is a definite challenge, often undermining claims to an “integrated” approach. Companies need to build on this initial level of interconnection, which is often limited to simple references, with more structured and in-depth content. There also needs to be more attention given to topics connected to the business such as innovation and information for customers.
Sustainability strategy: at the core of communication
Almost all of the European companies qualified for a full evaluation (81%) manage to complete the first three steps of the strategy “stairway” defining their sustainability commitment, identifying priority issues and laying out related targets.
If we include also the final steps which consider disclosure about progress in reaching sustainability targets and about the context in which companies operate, we see that a quarter of companies manage to have all the ingredients of a good sustainability strategy.
How storytelling changes the frames of sustainability
Digital has opened up new ways to communicate and continues to bring us new tools, but sustainability storytelling needs to address material issues and be relevant in a wider context to avoid the trap of self-referentiality.
While almost all companies in the European study deploy stories in the sustainability section of their website, two thirds have a separate magazine or blog to gather this kind of content. A considerable portion of the companies use a mix of solutions. These stories are commonly used to populate social media channels and speak to a broader audience than that offered by the corporate domain.
Storytelling forces sustainability to integrate into a broader narrative: while social and environmental topics are equally present in sustainability stories, increasing space is being given to stories that use sustainability to provide a perspective on innovation, business transformation and strategy.
How are European companies coping with storytelling?
HOW DO THE COMPANIES STACK UP?
A quarter of the companies we assessed (12 in all) populate the Explainers
quadrant, even though there were no stand-out results in terms of Substance. Most of these companies cling quite tightly to the middle-ground, indicating there is little that stops them evolving into Narrators or sliding down into Traditionalists
Nine of the 49 companies considered qualify as Narrators, led by oil companies BP and Eni, consumer groups Nestlé and Unilever as well as healthcare firms Bayer and Roche. Almost all of them strike a balance between Substance and Distinctiveness
This is the busiest area in our research with three in 10 of the companies we assessed finishing in this quadrant. Encouragingly, many of them have respectable overall performances – not far from the 50% mark – but fail to stand out either in terms of content or engagement. Below this level, seven companies fail to meet our minimum standard for sustainability information (“Core” evaluation) and didn’t qualify for a full assessment (“Sleepers”).
The seven “Glitterati” companies do not stand head and shoulders above the rest for their digital communications: most of them (Schneider Electric is the exception) are positioned little more than half-way along the Distinctiveness axis, suggesting that their positioning is caused rather by a lack of depth in their sustainability content.