Most consumers report a willingness to spend their dollars in ways that are beneficial for society and the environment. Yet sustainability is still far from entering the mainstream market, regardless of what we at TriplePundit are tempted to believe living in the green bubble that is San Francisco.
According to award-winning journalist and “Environmental Messenger,” Simran Sethi, “sustainability hasn’t taken off not because people don’t care, but because the story doesn’t resonate with people.” According to Sethi, it is hard to sensitize people beyond “magnitudes of one”. In other words, people must feel something on a personal level – one magnitude – before they are willing to make significant changes in how they live. Their rational minds might be willing to spend a slight premium on products made from recycled materials or created by the hands of individuals compensated fairly for their labor, yet they do not feel compelled to demand such products.
Perhaps sustainability marketers could learn something from our world’s most popular brands with whom they compete and sometimes stand in stark contrast. For generations, our most successful advertisers have forgone educating people on the complexities of their offerings in favor of appealing to the emotion of the crowd. In doing so, they have proven that consumer habits are driven largely by what society deems cool.
Think of the coolest brands you know – the Coca-Colas, Apples and Budweisers of the world. What do they have in common? Most have found a way to ingratiate themselves with sports (think World Cup, Shawn White and the Super Bowl). At last week’s GreenBiz Forum in San Francisco, leading executives from NASCAR, the America’s Cup and AEG discussed the opportunity for communicating sustainability through sports. NASCAR’s Managing Director of Green Innovation, Mike Lynch explained why sports are the ideal channel for advertisers. “In sports, defenses come down so the perceiver is willing to listen and process what’s being said when it’s in the framework of the sport that’s already very favorably disposed – where they feel a passionate proprietorship over it.” The same can be said for other cultural media like art and entertainment. Advertisers understand that we are emotionally susceptible to their messages when we are listening to the radio or Pandora or watching videos on YouTube.
The greatest challenge in communicating the sustainability message through these channels is that we are fighting an uphill battle. In our culture, cool is often synonymous with consumption. In sports, fans take their queue from the athletes who are reputed and often admired for their lavish spending habits. While they make natural characters for endorsing brands like Cadillac, Visa and vitaminwater, athletes and other celebrities are far from ideal spokesmen for sustainability. Assuming Lebron James doesn’t trade in his customized Ferrari F430 Spider for a Prius (or, at least, a Tesla Roadster) anytime soon, how can we convince people that sustainability is cool?
Yvon Choinard, Patagonia’s iconoclastic founder suggests that we start by making it uncool to be an ostentacious consumer. On the GreenBiz mainstage, the 74-year old Choinard captivated his audience by explaining how sustainability is not only good business, but the future of mainstream demand. Patagonia desires to make it unfashionable to consume through campaigns like Black Friday’s Don’t buy this jacket ad. Self-described “pessimistic doombat,” even Choinard believes that American’s youth represents a generation on track to shift consumer habits. “Right now, the hottest thing for young people is to wear is their parents’ old, old Patagonia stuff. Who would have thought that? You don’t wear your parents’ clothes for God’s sake!”
While it struggles with its image in environmentally conscious circles, NASCAR has experienced success with communicating sustainability to its somewhat unlikely audience of racing enthusiasts. All communications are built around three message points that they’ve identified as particularly important to their audience: job creation, national energy security and environmental conservation. In other words, when the attention is drawn to the effect of oil consumption on national security, it suddenly becomes very uncool to drive gas-guzzling SUVs or pass on opportunities to create jobs through embracing renewable energy production in the U.S.
“Saving the planet is now #41 on America’s list of priorities,” Choinard mentioned in his final remarks. Imagine how we might reset our priorities if it became cool to save the planet.