How Can Marketing Change Behavior for Good?

3p is proud to partner with the Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course on a blogging series about “sustainable marketing.” This post is part of that series. To follow along, please click here.

by Elze van Hamelen

Marketing can make people eat McDonald’s hamburgers, wear shoulder pads, and buy that new laundry detergent even though the old one is fine. It basically compels masses of people to run along with the latest fad. If marketing is so successful in changing our lifestyles, why is it so difficult to use it to promote more sustainable behavior?

We still leave lights on unnecessarily, let water run, use plastic bags, drive our cars instead of using public transportation, buy clothes made of cotton that leached into soils in India and were probably manufactured using child labor, and so on. Marketing campaigns aimed at changing these behaviors have not been very successful. What causes this lack of success, and how can we harness some of marketing’s power to change behavior for good?

The first reason is, of course, money. Global advertising spending was $531 billion in 2011, and most of this hasn’t gone to campaigns advocating behavior change for sustainability. The second reason is a fundamental difference between the “products” that are being promoted, and the difference between public and private goods. Individuals are quite good at making decisions that are gratifying for themselves, but aggregated choices can compound into situations where everyone collectively is worse off. In other words, individual choices cause social dilemmas that lie at the heart of most environmental problems.

In an intriguing article, Peter Kollock analyzes various types of social dilemmas, but more importantly, he lists ways to solve them. People who aren’t completely selfish can be motivated to behave in the best interest of the community by stressing group identity. More strategic or egoistic actors are primed by group reciprocity – they want to do what others are doing. In other words, keeping up with the Joneses. Lastly, Kollock recommends structural, “change the game” solutions. People feel powerless to take actions to improve the environment because they see so little effect. Making it easy to identify people who act, and making results visible, are ways to overcome this barrier.

Isn’t this what traditional marketing campaigns do? Make you feel like you belong, or that you need just as expensive a car as your neighbor. In addition, marketing through social media channels is perfect for displaying the effects of compound behavior.

Marketing campaigns promoting sustainable behavior often focus on the problems they try to solve, such as climate change, plastic in oceans, child labor, and environmental degradation. The horrific images they show invoke a fight-or-flight response, in tandem with a guilt trip. No wonder the effect of these campaigns is limited. Perhaps they can learn from Kollock’s recommendations and traditional marketing strategies.

image: Seth Rader via Flickr cc