Sustainability Communication in the Social Media Environment

Written by Lisa Weithaler

Stimulating Consumer Brand Engagement through Interactive Storytelling

Sustainability can no longer be classified as a passing fad. In fact, its increasing importance results in the formation of new markets and target groups. Each year the “Best Global Green Brands” are announced- 50 companies with an outstanding performance regarding social and ecological principles (Interbrand, 2014). Through an efficient communicational approach, these companies are also perceived as true sustainability brands among consumers. However, the emergence of social media, has strongly affected communication strategies of sustainability brands (Fieseler et. al, 2010), which raises the following issues:

Which challenges do companies face in the context of their sustainability communication? And what kind of opportunities can be taken considering an ever- increasing interconnectedness? Interactive storytelling was found to be an efficient communicational tool to boost brand engagement among consumers in an era of vast information overload. Using the example of the brand Patagonia, this communicational approach will be highlighted below.

Good deeds call for well-conceived communications

Sustainability brands (Belz & Peattie, 2013) indicate products and services, which offer added customer value in terms of ecological and social attributes. By focusing on the textile industry, the sportswear brand Patagonia stands out as a sustainability pioneer. The concept of sustainability is rooted in the company’s values, while respective principles are considered along the supply chain. Organic cotton and responsibly sourced wool are just two examples of Patagonia’s environmentally friendly practices (Patagonia, 2015).

Especially regarding the sensitive issue of sustainability, brands evoke either positive or negative brand perceptions among consumers. Thus, sustainability performance can boost the brand reputation, which underlines the importance of strategically communicating it to relevant stakeholders (Hoeffler & Keller, 2002; Fieseler et. al, 2010).

Ever- changing communicational environment

Many companies, however, do not communicate their social and ecological activities precisely enough to address their customers (Lewis, 2003). Advertising, social reports and corporate websites are mainly used to communicate sustainability practices (Birth et. al, 2008). The latter can be facilitated to inform, convince or even educate consumers. However, many corporate websites still represent static platforms, which are rarely used to interact with consumers or stimulate dialogues (Fieseler et. al, 2010).

In contrast, social media foster more active engagement between companies and their customers. Defined as ‘‘a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0’’ (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010, p. 61), social media enable the interchange of information via different types of communication platforms (Vernuccio, 2014). Respective platforms, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, are easy to access and utilized for socializing by a high number of users (Zarella, 2010; Brogan, 2010). To illustrate that, Patagonia’s YouTube channel currently has over 39.000 subscribers while the brand’s Facebook page reaches more than 478.000 Likes. 

Communicating on an equal footing with consumers

As the communicational environment is characterized by an anonymous scope, it is common that customer criticism is involved in the web-based interaction process (Fieseler et. al, 2010). This criticism might be even offensive and consequently harmful for the brand. Thus, companies have to consider how to cope with these situations. For instance, in 2010 Patagonia stood in the limelight after being accused for sourcing unethical down (Frank, 2014). The company addressed the situation by publishing a video on its YouTube channel (Figure 1), showing Patagonia’s ethical down supply chain in a visually narrative way (Patagonia, 2014).

Figure 1: What the Pluck? (Patagonia, 2014)

Nevertheless, due to unrestricted possibilities to pass comments, some YouTube users leveled criticism at Patagonia again. One user, for example, stated that it would be better if the gear would not consist of animal products at all (Curiel, 2014).

This example clearly determines the shift of consumer roles from quiet listeners to empowered individuals, who are on a level playing field with companies. Thus, within the social media environment, an information exchange process clearly substitutes formerly defined one-to-many communications (Hoffman & Novak, 1996). 

The so-called pinball metaphor, which is characterized by enhanced consumer participation and a prevailing networked interconnectedness, explains the altered consumer behavior (Hennig-Thurau et. al, 2013). Within the pinball environment, consumers represent proactive participants. They provide insight into individual experiences and attitudes about brands by sharing comments or videos on social media platforms. In the former bowling environment, consumers obtained messages without having unrestricted possibilities to respond. Empowered consumers, however, can influence and modify the original statement in positive or even negative ways, which was shown by the example above (Hennig-Thurau et. al, 2013). In a metaphorical sense, the pinball was sent back to Patagonia, which had to handle the criticism in a professional way. Thus, companies have to imply an efficient communicational strategy in order to stimulate consumer brand engagement. The main objective is thereby to guide the engagement in a way that it is in harmony with the company’s values (Hennig-Thurau et. al, 2013).

Intensifying emotional brand engagement through storytelling

It is essential to utilize the right communicational approach in order to make consumers listen to certain brand messages and consequently get them bonded with brands (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Patagonia has anchored the application of storytelling in its communication strategy. Hence, the company converts sustainability practices into stories and spreads them on different web-based platforms. However, how does storytelling and sustainability communications fit together? 

The concept of sustainability reflects a complex issue and consumers associate it with different aspects. (Michelsen, 2007) Thus, it is vital to link consumers’ personal motivations and attitudes about sustainability with the company’s socially and ecologically responsible performance. In this context, inspiring stories can be facilitated to express the company’s impact in terms of sustainability. They enable the creation of empathy and awareness among consumers and give meaning to the brand (Gensler et. al, 2013).

Not least because compelling narratives express tension, consumers get emotionally connected to the brand stories and encouraged to take part in it. The issue of sustainability creates external tension among consumers and is therefore suitable to be communicated narratively (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). By wrapping up sustainability performance and ideas into brand stories, Patagonia is able to evoke interactive conversations between the brand and its consumers. Thereby consumers embed personal stories while acting as pivotal co- producers of brand stories (Escalas 2004; Gensler et. al, 2013). Within this process, they tend to develop emotional engagement with the brand, which strongly interrelates with positive consumer behavior and profitability (Passikoff, 2013).

Powerful co-creation of brand stories

According to Gensler et. al (2013), “firms need to pay attention to such consumer-generated brand stories to ensure a brand's success in the marketplace” (p. 242). Patagonia actively considers these stories and integrates them into its communication strategy.

In 2013, Patagonia launched its “Worn Wear” campaign, which induced consumers to bring in their worn out Patagonia clothing to receive store vouchers in return. In parallel, consumers can still submit stories about their personal experience with a Patagonia clothing article on the “Worn Wear” blog page (Worn Wear, 2015).

Figure 2:  Papa's Pants  (Austin, 2015)

Figure 2: Papa's Pants (Austin, 2015)

Through initiatives like that, Patagonia skillfully motivates consumers to share authentic, brand-related content (Figure 2), which can be furthermore integrated into the overall brand story.

Rational ideas, wrapped in emotional stories

Beyond its emotional storytelling, Patagonia spotlights the rational aspect of mindful purchasing. Although sustainability reflects a rational phenomenon, Patagonia manages to arouse consumer’s emotional motivations to actively participate within the communication process. In this regard, Krishnamurthy and Dou (2008) state that “emotional motivations may include building social connections with friends, relatives or Internet users (social connections) or entertainment (self-expression)” (p.2). 

The “Worn Wear” videos and pictures, submitted by consumers reflect user-generated brand content that gives meaningful evidence of brand perceptions (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Besides the opportunity to bring in personal stories, Patagonia provides its customers with a number of hash tags, such as #wornwear, so that the stories can also be shared via platforms like Tumblr and Facebook. It is certainly challenging for the company to keep control of Patagonia as a brand within the social media environment. However, through creating a blog with the possibility for consumers to hand in their stories, Patagonia can decide whether the submitted content adds value to the brand story or not. If the content does not endorse Patagonia’s brand story, it might not be posted on the blog. In this way, Patagonia retrieves some kind of control over the communicational process.

Towards a holistic communication strategy

The unrestricted communicational scope of the social media environment provides consumers with almost unrestricted power to express their opinions about certain messages relating to firm’s sustainability practices. Therefore companies have to skillfully direct consumers’ web-based activities so that they are in line with the firms’ intentions. In this context, companies can even benefit from the emergence of so- called creative consumers as they might add value to the companies’ communicational messages (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012).

Especially when sustainability practices are wrapped up in brand stories, consumers tend to integrate their individual brand- related experiences. Thus, personal videos, pictures or status updates, are uploaded, which become visible for a large number of other online users. These authentic stories emotionally appeal to other consumers in the social media environment so that the rational issue of sustainability turns into something inspiring and moving.

Patagonia draws storytelling as a core communicational driver through all types of social media platforms. By doing this, the sustainability pioneer interlinks various messages relating to its socially and ecologically responsible impact. That implies that Patagonia embarks on a holistic sustainability communication strategy. Through this consumers are encouraged to develop brand engagement while the company benefits from positive consumer behavior. References


List of literature

Belz, F.M. & Peattie, K. (2013): Sustainability Marketing. A global perspective, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Birth, G., et. al (2008). Communicating CSR: Practices Among Switzerland’s Top 300 Companies, Corporate Communications: An International Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 182-196

Brogan, C. (2010). Social media 101: Tactics and tips to develop your business online, New York: John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Curiel D. (2014, November 16). What the Pluck? – Conventional Down Is a Scary Business [Online Comment]. Available Online: [Accessed 10 February 2015]

Escalas, J.E. (2004). Narrative Processing: Building Consumer Connections to Brands, Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 14, no. 1&2, pp. 168-180

Fieseler, C., Fleck, M. & Meckel, M. (2010). Corporate Social Responsibility in the Blogosphere, Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 91, no. 4, pp. 599-614

Frank, M. (2014). Adventure Journal, 29 January 2014, Down Has a Dirty Secret – But It’s Getting Cleaner, Available Online: [Accessed 10 February 2015]

Gensler, S., Völckner F., Liu-Thompkins, Y. & Wiertz, C. (2013). Managing Brands in the Social Media Envionment, Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol. 27, pp. 242-56

Hennig-Thurau, T., Hofacker, C.F. & Bloching B. (2013). Marketing the Pinball Way: Understanding How Social Media Change the Generation of Value for Consumers and Companies, Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 237-324

Hoeffler, S. & Keller, K.L. (2002). Building Brand Equity Trough Corporate Societal Marketing, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 77-89

Hoffman, D.L. & Novak, T.P. (1996). Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations, Journal of Marketing, vol. 60, no. 3, pp. 50-69

Interbrand (2014). Best Global Green Brands 2014 [pdf] Available Online: [Accessed 9 February 2015]

Kaplan, A.M. & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media, Business Horizons, vol. 53, no. 1, pp. 59-68

Krishnamurthy, S. & Dou, W. (2008). Advertising With User-Generated Content: A Framework And Research Agenda, Journal of Interactive Advertising, vol. 8, no.2, pp. 1-7

Lewis, S. (2003). Reputation and Corporate Responsibility, Journal of Communication Management, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 356-364

Michelsen, G. (2007). Nachhaltigkeitskommunikation: Verständnis- Entwicklung- Perspektiven, in Michelsen, G. & Godemann, J., (eds), Nachhaltigkeitskommunikation- Grundlagen und Praxis, Munich: Oekom Verlag

Patagonia. (2015). Environmental and Social Responsibility, Available Online:[Accessed 9 February 2015]

Passikoff. (2013). Forbes, 17 June 2013. Defining 'Brand Engagement': Blog. Available Online: [Accessed 8 February 2015]

Singh, S. & Sonnenburg, S. (2012). Brand Performances in Social Media, Journal of Interactive Marketing, vol. 26, no. 4, pp. 189-197

Vernuccio, M. (2014). Communicating Corporate Brands Through Social Media: An Exploratory Study, International Journal of Business Communication, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 211-233

Worn Wear (2015). Worn Wear- The Stories We Wear, Available Online: [Accessed 12 February 2015]

Zarella, D. (2010). The Social Media Marketing Book. North Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media


List of figures

Austin, C. (2015). Papa's Pants [ONLINE]. Available Online: [Accessed 8 February 15]

Patagonia. (2014). What the Pluck? – Conventional Down Is a Scary Business. [Online Video]. 29 October. Available Online: [Accessed 4 February 2015]