“Tricking” Consumers Into Doing the Right Thing

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 Emily Alt

All sustainable marketers are trying to accomplish the same thing: change consumer behavior. But how do we do this? As part of the green marketing community, we get it in our heads that we know how to stimulate behavior change…but do we really? We tend to think about what would motivate us to change our behaviors, but our behaviors are not the ones that need to be changed. The fact is that the way sustainably minded readers think is drastically different from the way wasteful consumers, the target audience, thinks. The green community is already buying organic vegetables, recycled paper towels, and reusable grocery bags. There has to be a way to influence consumers’ behaviors with them ultimately thinking it was their idea to change in the first place.

When encouraging a company to change its behavior, we focus on the non-environmental benefits. We highlight financial savings, brand value, and employee satisfaction. We gloss over the fact that the same changes will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ultimately be good for the environment because the majority of business owners just do not care.  It is as if we are tricking the businesses into changing their behavior, but it is a win-win where the company saves money and we induce behavioral change that helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So if the result is a net positive, does it matter how you got there?

This is all fine and dandy, but how can we do this at an individual level? Everybody is different and has different motivations for buying products, so how do we speak to each person individually, especially when they do not want to hear messages of sustainability?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a series of commercials aimed at increasing water conservation. The EPA wants to change people’s behavior, but does not want to be preachy; instead, they made the commercials slightly creepy and extremely entertaining.  Hollywood has even jumped on the changing-consumers’-behaviors bandwagon by having characters recycle, unplug unused appliances, and turn off lights when they leave a room. The ads show that these subtle green actions are normal and easy to do.

If these stealth messages have an impact on people’s daily actions, what lessons can marketers learn? What aspects of product should we focus on, if not the environmental components? If our ultimate goal is to change consumer behavior – and to encourage them to buy more sustainable products – how do we show that these products are cool and better for the consumer without sounding preachy?

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3 responses

  1. I work with Shelton Group, the agency behind the Wasting Water is Weird campaign. Let me be perfectly clear: it was in no way our intention “to trick” consumers – we don’t believe in that approach. Instead, we relied on our deep knowledge of behavioral science and applied creative thinking and entertainment value. Our motives were and are transparent – we want people to conserve water. No tricks there. We simply used a different and innovative approach that seems to be working.

    1. Maybe tricking wasn’t the right word to use. I was more thinking of ways that people can speak to consumers on their level. By making a series of commercials that are funny and kind of creepy, the EPA reached a different audience, other than just the environmental crowd who are already conserving water. It was not my intention to claim that you are not being transparent with your actions because your message is simple, clear, and very influential. I commend you on finding a different and creative way to speak to a broader spectrum of people.

  2. In 2006, my colleagues Jacquie Ottman, Cathy Hartman, and I published an article entitled, “Avoiding Green Marketing Myopia,” in the journal Environment, where we identified ways mainstream consumers would more likely purchase green products. Our research indicated that green messages can often be “re-framed” to highlight mainstream value, broadening the appeal of green products.

    Specifically, we found that green product attributes can be positioned on cost savings, health/safety, convenience, status, and high performance. Some green products can be “bundled” with added consumer value to make them more attractive as well.

    Our article is available at the link below.


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