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Big, Bold, Creative ... and Normal: How Brands Can Shift Sustainability Into the Mainstream

Unilever's "5 Levers for Change" video outlines the company's approach to motivating consumers to shift to more sustainable behaviours in their daily lives. | Image credit: Unilever

Bob Dylan understood the sustainability challenge long ago when he sang, “People seldom do what they believe in / They do what is convenient, then repent” in “Brownsville Girl.”

For sustainability to become mainstream, we need to reframe the debate — in terms of both language and relevant benefits. I believe mass-market and well-loved brands are best placed to drive and accomplish this critical shift.

So do we just need to leverage brands to make people care about the environment?

Not so simple! Changing attitudes is important, but it isn’t enough. Research indicates that there isn’t a clear link between values and action on sustainability issues. In one experiment, 94% claimed individuals had a responsibility to pick up litter, but only 2% picked up litter that was “planted” by the researcher*. In another study, people who attended energy efficiency workshops reported knowing and caring more about energy conservation, but only 1 in 40 participants changed their behaviour**. We need to apply marketing methods that change both attitude and behaviour.

That’s no easy feat and many sustainability campaigns are missing a trick, built on faith in the power of knowledge: ‘If only people knew, they would act.’ To this end, many sustainability communication efforts have focused on awareness-raising campaigns that speak to the rational mind (we all know humans are not rational…), on the production of reports or the placement of articles and opinions in the media. As a strategy, it is not working. Opinion polls reveal a high level of awareness with virtually no signs of any change in behaviour. So why do people claim to understand sustainability issues but fail take action?

When it comes to motivating Mainstream consumers to act, much of what we’ve been doing has actually been cementing this ‘Green Gap’ — the gap between intention and action. Not only do we have a ‘green gap’ to close between consumer intentions and actions, we also have a somewhat similar gap to close for marketers. In thinking that a specific approach to marketing sustainability was required, marketers have essentially created a niche — creating ‘green’ sub-brands for the ‘greenies’ and alienating the mainstream.

Simply put, we’ve been missing the 81% of UK respondents (79% in the US) who characterise themselves as 'somewhere in the middle.'

66% of UK respondents did not think green was mainstream  they think the ‘green’ product category most appeals to tree huggers (50.5%) and rich elitist snobs (24%). That’s a combined 75% of the UK population who think that green isn’t for them!***

We conducted our Mainstream Green research to better understand where the green gap stems from and how marketing could help close it  a necessary step if we are to create a sustainable society.

The premise for this study was that people’s stated values and intentions do not mirror their actions, so we approached our research in a way that helped us triangulate to the truth, pulling together insights from industry experts and secondary research, as well as our direct questioning and observation of consumers through video ethnographic research.

The use of video ethnographic research was critical to understanding sustainability in the context of people’s lives: observing people and their behavior ‘in situ.’ It helped us to understand the ‘cultural logic,’ the meanings people attribute to people, places and things, and to experience firsthand how people respond to the situations in which they find themselves. It was a collaborative process of decoding what people see themselves doing and the meanings they attach to their behaviors. Importantly, it allowed us to understand social behavior — seeing what people do not do that they say they do helped us find real-world insights for behavior change.

Our research confirmed what neuroscientists and behavioral economists have shown: Attitudes and beliefs are shaped by behaviors; behaviors drive belief systems more than the other way around. We are social creatures and look to others around us to help us decide how we live our lives. We may not fully understand what’s best and what we really want, but we can follow what others do and act accordingly. And then, to make sense of our lives, we often adopt new values and beliefs that make our behaviors all make sense.

This simple shift in emphasis suggests a radical change of approach when it comes to messaging and marketing around sustainability. We have been expending a disproportionate amount of our energy and marketing dollars trying to change people’s beliefs, values and attitudes.

Our study indicates that we should turn this on its head and shift the emphasis to changing behavior. It suggests we embrace a simple truth about human behavior — people want to fit in and be normal. Simply put, we need to stop worrying about people’s attitudes and start paying attention to shaping their behaviors.

The path to closing the Green Gap is through popularizing and normalizing the desired behavior: Normal is sustainable.

The information is out there, and the public is primed. Now we need to dismantle the barriers to green behavior, reframing heedless consumption as abnormal and anti-social and green behavior as normal and inclusive. The smart brands and marketers who can drive this positive behavior change will benefit their own bottom lines while helping to improve conditions around the world.

The marketing communications community popularizes things; that’s what we do best. But if we want green behaviors to be widespread, then we need to treat them as mass ideas with mass communications, not elite ideas with niche communications.

It sounds straightforward but we still have a long way to go. Our research found that a staggering 62% of UK respondents thought that people who go out of their way to live a sustainable/environmentally responsible lifestyle are viewed by society as ‘slightly out of the norm, not quite like everyone else.’

To shift sustainability to the mainstream, we need partnerships between bold marketers, mass-market brands and creative thinkers — mainstream consumers need this holy trinity to feel that sustainability is normal.

Ingredient 1: Bold marketers

Despite being in a prime position to effect change, we often hear marketers say that sustainability is interesting but that none of their customers are asking for it.

If you market sustainability to those who are asking for it, you’re marketing to the choir, not to the congregation. It is important to go beyond the usual suspects to reach the congregation, the majority. These people are not environmental activists or climate cynics, but they have a slight interest in global issues and could change their behaviour if approached successfully.

The behavioural challenge to creating widespread engagement is therefore not just with the consumer but also with marketing teams. As marketers we need to re-learn how to lead, rather than follow, consumers.

It takes courage, but we’re starting to see it happen more. Brands such as Innocent and Unilever are leading by embracing the idea of being flawsome: striving for honesty rather than perfection. I believe the brands of the future will be the ones that lead consumers.

Ingredient 2: Mass-market brands

Mass-market brands are ‘normal’ — they help drive the perception that sustainability is the norm, not the niche. They are the key to mass adoption of sustainable behaviours that will have an effect on attitude over time.

In addition, our research found that 65% of UK respondents would rather purchase an environmentally responsible product line of a familiar mainstream brand than purchase the product from a company who specializes in being green.

Essentially, this is about consumers demanding an acceptable level of effectiveness from products, sustainable or not. Mass-market brands lend a measure of reassurance, so consumers can buy them without stepping out of their comfort zone, which in turns reduces the sense of effort.

It’s not just the messaging that is important. In line with our key finding that we need to stop trying to change people’s beliefs and values and shift the emphasis to changing behavior, we also found that marketers in this space have focused on nailing the messaging  at the expense of ensuring easy delivery of the product. As Bob Dylan said, convenience is key!

Ingredient 3: Creative thinkers

When you think about what defines a great creative, it’s the ability to bring a fresh perspective that leads to surprising solutions and perhaps most importantly, to create emotional connections. We need to use pervasive creativity to create an emotional connection between faraway, intangible problems and our everyday lives. We need savvy social media strategies to connect people and show the inspiring impact of collective actions that seem meaningless in isolation.

Much of the best creative talent is today concentrated in the communications sector, but we need creative thinkers everywhere! We need creatives in government, businesses need to rethink how they evaluate talent and as a society we need to stop thinking of ourselves as just consumers and see ourselves as creatives in our own right.

The sustainability movement needs all of the above if we are to get people unstuck and inspired to act. It is time to forge a new era of sustainability marketing. It’s time to acknowledge human nature; self-interest will always trump altruism. It’s time to focus on changing behaviour, not attitudes. And it’s time we all agree that “normal” is neither a dirty word nor a boring strategy. Normal is mainstream; normal is popular; and above all, normal is the key to sustainability.

* Bickman, L. (1972) Environmental attitudes and actions. Journal of Social Psychology, 87: 323-324.
** Geller, E.S. (1981) Evaluating Energy Conservation Programs: Is Verbal Report Enough? The Journal of Consumer Research, 8 (2): 331-335.
*** OgilvyEarth UK Mainstream Green research 2012


Kathleen Enright is Ogilvy's first UK practice head of OgilvyEarth, Ogilvy’s global sustainability marketing consultancy.

With over seven years’ experience in social marketing and sustainable development in Europe, Asia and North America, Kathleen will be responsible for… [Read more about Kathleen Enright]