Why brands need to flip the funnel on green innovations

In 2008, a Green Pulse survey found that an overwhelming majority of Australians (80%) were concerned about the environment. Fast forward five years later and this concern is yet to translate into a change in consumer behaviour. For ‘green’ products and services these findings highlight the need for a new approach to marketing – because as history has shown, the classical marketing model is far from green-friendly.

Essentially, there’s no evidence to suggest that attitude is linked to behavior when it comes to buying green. In the six years of Green Pulse polling, an average of only 10% of Australians have told us that they consciously make an effort to buy green products and services.

So what becomes of brands trying to develop sustainable innovations and solutions?

And if most people are at least open to a compelling green proposition, why don’t they act on their concerns?

Weighing up the long and short-term gains 

Contemporary thinking in psychology has focused on how humans are hard wired to look for short-term problems and solutions, and we’re very bad at considering long-term problems.

Climate change, obviously a long-term issue, therefore needs to be linked to a short term benefit to appeal to us. For example, it’s hard for a mum to justify the higher cost of the green cleaning product against the potential difference that might make to the Amazon rainforest. We’re acutely aware of the cost of everything at the point of sale, but if we’re to be honest, most of us are rarely conscious of the cost on the environment.

And at the product level, it’s fair to say that historically many green products have often been more expensive, or inferior products, or both. Not a compelling proposition for most shoppers. The reality is that fresh or local food is relatively more expensive now than it used to be and processed food is relatively cheaper now than it used to be.

So we can summarise that essentially more sustainable options are not clearly linked to an environmental benefit and they’re not easy choices to make for fundamental price and product reasons.

Which is exactly the model that Professor Ken Peattie of Cardiff University in the UK uses to explain how to actually create pro-environmental behavior change: make it easy and make a difference.

Keep it simple stupid

The point raised by Professor Peattie is that everyone is essentially pro-sustainability unless they’re just plain cantankerous – why would anyone willingly choose a more wasteful or polluting product?

If people are given a green choice that’s both easy to do and clearly linked to a benefit then they typically adopt them. Research conducted by Pollinate with a number of brands has shown that activities such as kerbside recycling, using green bags instead of plastic bags, and choosing energy or water-efficient appliances is now widespread, even among many people who are not necessarily ‘green’. Why? Because being green makes sound, economic sense in these instances and is also an accepted social norm.

But the solution is not so simple if the very perception of ‘green’ itself is tarnished.

Environmental awareness – then and now

Once upon a time the world was a much simpler place. We all embraced consumerism after WWII and led peaceful and ever more prosperous lives.

By the 1970s and 80s some people noticed that, actually, the environment was losing and they set out to raise awareness of the issues and the environmental movement was born out of protest and activism. And thank goodness it was, because by the time whales had been saved (nearly) and acid rain and ozone holes fixed up, climate change emerged as the ‘biggest moral challenge’ of our lives.

So most people now have a degree of environmental awareness and the environment joined the list of ‘big things people care about’ along with the economy, health and education and security issues.

Environmentalism’ a dirty word

But the environmental movement made two basic mistakes. Firstly, it didn’t involve people by thanking them or celebrating its success. Secondly, it carried on protesting. Most people in Australia became a bit green. And in response, the ‘greenies’ just got even greener. So while green issues have become mainstream, the greenies have stayed extreme. The environmental movement argues about which type of sustainable wood accreditation is better instead of creating a compelling argument for choosing more wood over concrete or steel.

This means that any green innovation in Australia can’t be couched in the language of environmentalism if it’s to appeal to most people.

The five easy solutions

So faced with an unmet need, how do we create green products and services that people will actually adopt?

First of all, don’t position them as green or sustainable products. Focus on how they’re a better product. Green & Blacks is a premium chocolate brand, made with care and is Fairtrade – it’s a less guilty chocolate and it’s very much a mainstream choice.

Secondly, look for trusted endorsements that appeal to the mainstream and not the extreme. In a survey we carried out this year, Planet Ark was found to be the most highly-trusted environmental NGO that’s also non-confrontational and non-political. The organisation is up there with CSIRO which is also trusted by most Australians.

Thirdly, identify the agent for change within your target market. Businesses that undertake successful retrofits are usually not run by green CEOs. They’re usually key employees within the business who personally put a business case to the economically-focused CEO to make a change for the better. They’re the influential person who makes it happen and these influentials are crucial to nudge society towards behavior change.

Fourth: align your claim with a clear economic or social benefit, i.e. healthy, better for your skin, or better for your business. For example, the key for an influential getting their CEO to agree to a building upgrade is by linking an environmental upgrade to economic common sense. By creating this connection, the influential makes it easy for the CEO to do it.

And finally, make sure your innovation is aligned with your brand values and is not just a line extension or add-on. The ethics of clothing and equipment brand, Patagonia, ensures it will only ever make sustainable products, while Australian Ethical Investments does was it says on the tin. These brands are built on a trusted foundation of sustainability without being part of confrontational language of the extreme green movement. They make it easy to see the benefit.

Ask yourself, what aspect of my brand is sustainable? If you can’t find anything, perhaps the innovation needs to start with your brand and business itself. Get this right first and the consumer will trust that your offer will be a sustainable choice.

 

Note: Howard Parry-Husbands is also a non-executive director of Planet Ark

About Green Pulse: Since 2007, Pollinate has surveyed over 20,000 Australians via the Green Pulse, a nationally representative online survey of 1000 Australians aged 14-64 years of age. To date, some of Australia’s largest companies and NGOs have utilised the data to form the foundations of successful green marketing, communications, NPD and corporate reputation platforms. 

Howard Parry-Husbands
BY Howard Parry-Husbands ON 23 August 2012
Managing director, Pollinate, a strategic research agency founded in 2004 by people frustrated with the average research experience. Pollinate works with influential consumers to develop innovative ideas, products and campaign concepts for brands.