Does ‘mother know best’ when it comes to sustainability?

A recent article, ‘Greener (Brown) Toilet Paper and the Elusive Green Consumer‘ contains a significant statement: “If our economy is going to become more just and sustainable, change will have to come from the top down, not from the bottom up”.  Few are likely to question that to achieve a truly transformed and sustainable economy the efforts of governments, multilateral organizations, companies, NGOs and others will be necessary.  However, it will also require the acquiescence of, and behaviour change by, consumers.

There seems to be a prevalent notion within the sustainability community that consumers are essentially selfish actors who must be cajoled or, if necessary, forced to change their behaviour.  This attitude, informed by a well-developed understanding of the criticality of the issue to planet and future generations, is understandable.  However, it lacks insight into how best to motivate consumers and an all-round understanding of their mindset.

To marketers, the idea of trying to force behavioural change onto consumers is anathema.  This will seem deeply ironic to the large numbers of commentators who are convinced that marketing is primarily engaged in doing exactly this.  But the truth is that marketing, as it has developed in the post-World War II world, has been based upon using consumer needs and wants as the optimum driver for creating revenue growth and valuable brands.  Bad practice exists in every profession, but does not by its existence impugn that profession’s principles.

Marketing succeeded by rejecting the previous philosophy driving most companies of producing products that were deemed to be appropriate for the marketplace and then selling them as hard as possible.  Once companies like these had to compete against others that used a market-driven strategy, they faced extinction.  The British motorbike and car industries demonstrated the catastrophic outcome of such a strategy, as has the travails of the American car industry in recent years.

A further simple (to understand, but not execute) but profound element of strategic marketing is also frequently ignored by non-marketers: that of segmentation.  This concept is fundamental to marketing and successful company growth, but requires a bit of practical and intellectual rigour.  Consumers are self-evidently not all the same: too easily, non-marketers slip into talking about ‘consumers’ and ‘people’ as though they were, however.

All consumer markets can be segmented into groups, which will differ in size and nature according to the segmentation criteria chosen.  In the case of sustainability, terms such as ‘deep greens’, ‘positive choosers’, ‘green rejectors’, etc. are fairly well known as descriptors for consumer groups at different stages of knowledge, attitude and behaviour.  To ever lump them all together is an absurdity, yet it is a trap that many fall into.

There are no short cuts to understanding these consumer groups and how they are evolving.  Because this is another truth: consumer attitudes and behaviour are evolving and are not static.  We may wish attitudes and behaviour to evolve faster, in order to achieve greater levels of sustainability, but that is further reason to comprehend more fully how best to devise the most appropriate offerings and communications for each group.

Initiatives in the marketplace that smack of ‘mother knows best’ run a significant risk of failure: they must reflect the consumer viewpoint to succeed.  If consumers are being asked to sacrifice a benefit that they already have and value, or to change their behaviour, they need to be given a good reason – as we all would.  Pepsico’s Sun Chips biodegradable packaging failed because the annoyance of the noisy bag to consumers had not been understood fully.  As a marketing-led business, Pepsico have responded to the initial failure by introducing quieter biodegradable bags.  The case for the trade-off between environmental benefit and greater noise has yet to be made successfully – but a marketing-led organization will take the view that ideally no compromise is required.

Tesco’s decision to halt extension of carbon labelling to all its products, referred to in the article cited previously, is a recognition that consumers have yet to be convinced of the initiative’s usefulness (and Tesco of its expense).  It was never the case that British shoppers were necessarily expected to demand the labels, as the article states; Tesco is another marketing-led company that saw the initiative as one way to help its consumers towards being more sustainable.  The retailer will undoubtedly look for other/additional ways to achieve this end, whilst meeting other consumer priorities as well.  Wider use of standardised labelling will, of course, also facilitate increased consumer knowledge and engagement.

As many companies engaged in trying to market more sustainable products and services are discovering, the sustainability aspects of the offering can often be used to enhance the appeal of the brand and help grow its equity.  But they are also understanding that the balancing of the sustainability elements with other elements of the proposition is a skilled task, requiring extensive consumer insight.

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About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
This entry was posted in Developing Sustainability Marketing, Understanding Marketing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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