Brands versus engagement on changing consumer behavior

Kevin Moss at BT recently posted an article exploring whether consumers can incite sustainable change. He writes:

But how do companies engage with the consumer? It’s likely that combinations of routes are the answer. One option – and probably the most popular- is to use the brand to engage the consumer. This approach to marketing makes sustainability desirable and helps change consumer behaviour. P&G, for example, is launching their “Everyday Savers” sustainability campaign…

This is great – making sustainability the focus of brand communication and offering accessible and practical advice – but arguably, overlooks the individual behaviours that are rooted in social and institutional contexts.”

Here’s my take on the brand question. Not every brand can or should engage with customers. And those that should may engage in very different ways, at different levels of visibility, in ways that align appropriately with the market and the core value proposition. My answer is, “it depends.”

We should tease apart brand versus engagement. When we think brand, we should be building the necessary strategic foundation before starting into communications or engagement. I define “brand” as a promise delivered; we need to first define (or redefine) that brand promise when it comes to sustainability. We have some proven methodologies to help with this. Considerations include:

  • how much sustainability should be visible to the market and integrated into brand positioning. I wrote about this in my last post on Brand-Led Sustainability Strategy; these options include behind the scenes (Walmart, Nike), supporting role (Unilever, M&S) and starring role (New Leaf Paper).
  • how it should show up in the brand portfolio. Those options I wrote about in A Portfolio Approach to Building a Credible Sustainable Brand, and include endorsed/unendorsed product brands (Burt’s Bees vs. Green Works), initiative brands (GE Ecomagination), ingredient brand (P&G’s Future Friendly, Home Depot’s EcoOptions) or master brand (Seventh Generation).

The right answers to these questions depend on several variables including:

  • executive commitment to expanding scope of sustainability beyond the company’s four walls
  • management and operational credibility required to raise the company’s proverbial head above the radar without becoming an NGO target
  •  the size of your total addressable sustainability market (you’ll ideally need to do some segmentation work for this, with some add-on analytics to identify revenue linkages)
  • Competitive activity in the space
  • Overall category trends

Overcomplicated? Some might think so. But this process establishes the business case for brand-led sustainability and the roadmap for how the company plans to capture the opportunity.

Once the sustainable brand strategy has been determined, then we can identify whether a brand should engage customers, and if so, how. Engagement — ideally a combination of education, easy action requests, and rewards — should absolutely be able to change behavior. A big caveat, however, is that more than a handful of companies need to take the lead. Effective techniques include gamification, or leveraging psychological truths like “people do what their neighbors are doing,” or creating awareness about what’s really in those products or how they were made.

However, we need to create a movement.

Not a consumer movement… a company movement. We need more executives to be brave enough to expand sustainability beyond the four walls of their company. To be brave enough to take a stand. To be confident enough that we can create markets for sustainable products and services, not just wait for them to magically appear. This requires leadership, innovation and courage across multiple companies and industries. When consumers begin seeing and hearing this message from multiple angles, that’s when the tipping point will occur.




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