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What Sustainable Brand Managers Can Learn From Homer Simpson

Marc Stoiber
Marc Stoiber | Monday February 4th, 2013 | 1 Comment

homerNew initiatives don’t succeed merely because they’re “smart.” They also connect on a more visceral, emotional level with their followers. Indeed, as Simon Sinek notes, movements that focus on rational, intellectual benefits fall flat. Their audience may agree with all that’s being said, but don’t feel the urge to take part.

Think about hapless Homer Simpson. He knows hoagie sandwiches in the garbage are bad for him, but his stomach overrules his brain.

I don’t want to draw a line between Homer and our readers, but you’ll probably agree that logic takes a backseat to emotions far too often.

To make matters worse, many sustainable brand initiatives involve complex goals disconnected from our emotions (350, anyone?). As the argument gets more cerebral, the passion for action declines.

So how do you reconnect the head and heart?

Tying energy to emotion

Here in my home province, we have a program designed to help British Columbia, Canada residents save energy.

This is a tough sell in a place where the majority of energy is cheap and clean. What’s my motivation for conserving power when it costs so little and comes from a hydro dam?

It’s a problem local utility marketing executive Jim Nelson deals with on a daily basis. “Sure, we can tell people conservation will save them money and help save the world,” says Nelson. “But that argument needs to be made pretty captivating before it moves a critical mass of people.”

So Nelson’s team has wrapped the conservation message a number of ways, keeping it fresh. Very much unlike Homer’s hoagie sandwich.

  • Celebrity Storytelling – Celebrities like the Shopping Bags are pushing the conservation story. Their message gets traction because it’s tied to shopping, one of our favorite activities. By simply promoting the Shopping Bags story, Hydro can drive home an energy conservation message without saying a word.
  • Gamification – Working with teachers and students, the utility developed educational games and activities under the banner First Wave. For the office set, meanwhile, a contest and game called Wastebusters was developed. In both, classic game principles like reward and levels of achievement were used to turn conservation into competition.
  • Loyalty – A residential behavior program is used by Hydro to drive conservation at home. Because of the program’s long-term nature, it was created with a strong loyalty element which includes exclusive comparison tools and consumption tracking graphs; members-only offers, contests and events; a Reduction Challenge for rewards; and regular communication – including correspondence and a magazine.

A question of worldviews

Key to each of these programs’ success was mapping out possible intersection points between energy savings and engagement. Working with consultants Jay Kassirer and Aditi Gowri, Nelson and his team discovered that the elements of Resonance (‘This is right for me”), Affiliation (‘This is who I am”) and Enjoyment (“I like this”) were key drivers of uptake.

Fundamental to establishing these points of resonance was understanding the worldview of the audience.

As with any mass-market initiative, these worldviews were far from homogeneous. That meant the Hydro team had to drill down to fundamentals. Elements like reward, competition and problem-solving gave the initiatives the broad appeal they needed.

Sustainable brand building lessons

  • Emotions first – Rational reasons for adoption may get everyone’s head nodding. But they won’t spur action.
  • Emotions tied to worldviews – Your customers are a diverse bunch – they need to have their individual emotions stoked. A message that resonates for one, might not resonate for another. Look for universals.
  • If the product is rational, use emotion-driving tactics – gamification, storytelling, loyalty – piggyback your product to them to break through to a deeper, action-oriented level of your audience.

[image credit: Gabri Solera: Flickr cc]


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  • Dave Shires

    Great article. Pretty common sense for the most part, but far easier said that done. Got any information on the actual results of these campaigns?