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The Future of Sustainability Is Design, Not Communication

The growth of the collaborative consumption movement, as seen in the popularity of services such as Airbnb, speaks to the shift in consumer priorities from ownership to access, and products to services | Image credit: Airbnb

When it comes to building brands and driving change, effective communication is a prerequisite. Unsurprisingly then, communications are often the first port of call when it comes to the unique challenges and opportunities that sustainability represents for today’s brands.

However, emerging cultural, economic and technological trends related to sustainability are forcing brands to think differently about the role of communications in their wider brand ecosystem. As is so often the case, when the game is changing this quickly, a more effective solution requires a redefinition of the problem.

In the future, those brands that take the lead, engage the consumers and drive the growth will be those that understand sustainability as a design challenge, rather than a communications problem.

The future of advertising is experiences, not messages

There are two trends converging here. Firstly, the rise of digital is forcing brands to fundamentally redefine the way in which they interact with their consumers. ‘Digital advertising’ already accounts for more spend than ‘traditional’ and is growing exponentially as the engagement opportunities it represents are unpacked. The fact that a digital application or platform is rich in interactivity immediately shifts the emphasis from advertisers communicating messages at audiences to content creators designing experiences for users.

Secondly, the traditional advertising and marcomms model is seeing an increasingly steep trend of diminishing returns as consumer trust continues to decline. We see this in the data with trust in advertising professionals third lowest after politicians and peer-to-peer communication replacing ‘paid for’ as the main trigger for purchasing decisions.

Consumers are becoming immune to persuasive messages and are patronised by suggestions that a hunk of plastic/metal/electrics will make them more beautiful, confident and virile. They are seeking authentic and useful interaction with their brands and shifting the question from ‘how can you help me impress others?’ to ‘how can you help make my life better, easier or more meaningful?’ Again, as soon as we begin to talk about meaningful brand interaction, we elevate the thinking from communication to design.

Bringing these points squarely back to sustainable brands, the rise of digital allows us to dematerialise much of our communication whilst creating more engaging interaction. Furthermore, the emphasis on meaningful experiences reflects the slow extinction of the 'consumer' and the triumphant return of the 'human being' as the focal point for brand interaction. More importantly, we are seeing the return of the human condition as the crucible of brand value, not the economic transaction.

The future of behaviour change is context, not information

Consumer behaviour change will emerge as the central strand of the sustainable brands movement over the next decade. As opportunities for supply chain improvement are exhausted, brands will have to look downstream to consumer behaviour change for sources of further progress on sustainability.

Whilst communication has an indispensable role to play in behaviour change efforts, trends are emerging that suggest that further progress will depend on design thinking rather than communications theory.

Many of the linear models of behaviour that have driven the vast majority of behaviour change programmes are logical, rational and built around internal psychological constructs. In broad strokes: knowledge determines attitudes, attitudes drive behaviour.

Whilst working within this paradigm, the role of communications in a behaviour change context is clear: an effective means of transmitting information and therefore shifting attitudes.

Unfortunately, human behaviour is neither logical, rational, nor driven by internal psychological constructs (as the deluge of recent new and repackaged behavioural science clearly demonstrates). By contrast, we are finding that our thought and action is primarily emotional, irrational and driven by external contexts.

The consequences of a paradigm shift in any domain take time to diffuse down to the mainstream. But as this one does, we will all realise that we must enable behaviour change, rather than communicate it; empower rather than persuade; build value in people's lives, rather than plant messages in consumers' heads. Ultimately, we need to design products, services and environments, rather than craft messages, images and campaigns.

The future of value exchange is access, not ownership

Collaborative consumption, product/service system innovation, the sharing economy and even cloud-computing can be taken as barometers for a fundamental shift in consumer consciousness: the recognition that the value of a product is located in access or usage rather than ownership.

This shift has significant implications for brand communication. Firstly, in many cases access models are based on more frequent, lower value transactions over time, rather than a single transaction of high value in one particular moment. Secondly, the rise of social media means that purchasing decisions are driven increasingly by peer-to-peer reviews, ratings and recommendations.

This means that as brands move towards an access model, the design of the service platform and experience becomes the primary driver of both brand value and communication. That is, a well-designed service experience is the only way to gain the repeat purchases that the business model relies on — and the only means of triggering positive peer-to-peer communication in the social space.

The future of brand is service, not product

The common thread through the themes outlined above is a shift away from brands built around things to brands built around experiences.

Arguably (and hopefully), this in turn is being driven by a wider shift in consumer culture away from extrinsic value sets to more intrinsic motivations that find value in experiences and not things. Obviously, products are not going to go away — indeed with the democratisation of 3D printing and the rise of the maker movement, we are likely to see a new fetishisation of the physical thing. The point is that we are seeing a growing awareness that the value of the thing does not reside in the thing, but in the experience that it facilitates in the life of the person.

In technical terms, this represents a shift from product-dominant logic to service-dominant logic that would need a separate article to do it justice. In terms of sustainability brands, it has three specific opportunities to simultaneously drive growth and change:

  • Firstly, a consumer mindset that is conducive to dematerialisation: digital experiences, access rather than ownership
  • Secondly, an appetite for innovations that help consumers manifest their intentions to live more sustainably
  • Thirdly, consumer demand for more human-centred interactions based on intrinsic values and genuine human needs.

These have huge implications for how brands communicate sustainability — how we empower lower impact behaviours, how we widen the appeal of access-based value models and how we embody intrinsic values in our programmes.

However, the biggest implication is the need to see communications in the wider context of a brand ecosystem that is changing much more quickly that its natural counterpart. A change that is seeing the shift to a conception of value based on meaning rather than message, empowerment rather than persuasion; value that is co-created with consumers in the context of their lives, rather that embedded within a product or transaction. Fundamentally, value that is designed rather than communicated.

SB Issues in Focus For more examples of how brands can use #Communications to share their values with consumers, check out our Issue in Focus: Communicating Sustainability.

Steven is a writer, speaker and freelance consultant specialising in behaviour change, sustainability, and social innovation. His work spans roles as a D&AD Trustee, ECD at social design Collaborative Change and Founding Director at behaviour change consultancy, Considered. He is also author of… [Read more about Steven Johnson]




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