Can marketers and advertisers save the world?

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We must convince our customers to convert their social conscience into action.

For one week in May almost every newspaper’s front page and every news channel – in the U.S. and internationally – led with one story: The Trump Administration’s decision to exit the Paris climate accord. However, very quickly the news started shifting from doom and gloom to optimism. 

And that call was led by corporate America. With news rolling in from company after company about their resolute commitment to climate action regardless of the politics, the road ahead became clear – and implies a particularly enticing moment for marketers to make their mark as movement builders and behavior change experts. 

As businesses continue to invest in sustainability including experimenting product redesigns, new business models and a more resource-efficient way of doing business, mainstreaming sustainable consumer behavior will rise to the top as a significant driver. But survey after survey continues to show a gap between intent (consumers want to buy sustainable products and support companies that support social and environmental causes) and action (when it comes to the point of purchase, they do not always follow through). So how can we convince consumers to convert their values into business value? And build in the business case for saving our world?

So we decided to test how marketing can play a role in positively influencing sustainable consumer behaviors. Teaming up with BSR, we convened the Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group, which includes eBay, AT&T, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. (J&JCI), Walmart along with Stanford University to test a few different marketing approaches to see their influence on behaviors like purchasing more sustainable products or recycling and brand reputation.

The tests, one of the largest collaborative tests of its kind, were conducted over 18 months – and led to one critical finding: Helping consumers behave more sustainably can be a key brand reputation builder. 

Both eBay and J&JCI found that developing communications to help consumers be more sustainable actually improved consumers’ perception of the brands as environmentally responsible. J&JCI tested posts on social media that encouraged consumers to recycle in various ways, from explaining how recycling can reduce landfill, to inspiring them to use empty containers as DIY planters. They found that almost all of the creative improved participants’ perceptions of the brand as environmentally responsible, allowing the brand a competitive advantage when other factors such as price and performance are equal.

These tests validate a growing body of evidence that sustainability can be a healthy business driver including what I found in my research for Green Giants, which lays out the business case for sustainability. These tests prove that in order to market sustainable behavior, we must get the hierarchy of benefits right. Specifically, marketers must prioritize focusing on:

  • Making sustainable behavior fun and enjoyable to enhance adoption - When testing out different recycling signage at a restaurant in San Francisco, McDonald’s found that creative with fun and cute imagery with vibrant colors can capture the attention of customers and provide an unexpected moment of joy. Once their attention had been captured, customers could then focus more on the task at hand—recycling. These types of signs were significantly more effective than the control scenario sign, which was basic and monotone. 
  • Ensuring that sustainability is a useful value-add to sell sustainable products - When testing messages to promote a digital home security and energy automation system, AT&T found that a range of messaging generated interest in the service, but the most effective messaging focused on benefits like security and control over one’s home rather than carbon footprint reduction. However, in surveys, consumers said they were interested in energy conservation. This suggests that just because a certain behavior leads to environmental benefits does not mean marketing those benefits should be the most prominent focus. Perceived value of the product and functionality are nearly always the primary purchase drivers.

What we learned is that marketing fundamentals still apply. That great marketing is much more powerful than green marketing.

Just because a product has a sustainability attribute does not mean advertisements needs to lead with pleas to save the environment. As advertisers know best, sales is not just about functional value. It’s about sparking inspiration to enjoy a delightful experience. It’s about feeling good. And when selling sustainability attributes, it must be about doing the right thing while having fun and feeling joyful. 

We also learned that guidance can help.

Consumers need help to adopt new behaviors. And it must be easy, intuitive and compelling. Product labelling, social media content, and campaigns can help by providing guidance on how they can get involved from how to navigate different eco-labels, recycle, and more.

Sure, the transition to a more sustainable economy is a huge task. But all hands are on deck. 

And for marketers, this is the time to dig deep into their psychology and sociology pockets for human truths that can sway millions to adopt more world-saving habits. With some help from their admired brands. And help make our world great again.

Mike Noel is Senior Strategist and Freya Williams is CEO, North America at Futerra.