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Raz Godelnik headshot

5 Reasons Why Johnson & Johnson's Tumblr Recycling Campaign is Likely to Fail

Houston we have a problem: while 7 out of 10 Americans say they always or almost always recycle, only 1 in 5 consistently recycles bathroom items. How do you close this gap? Johnson & Johnson, the company that came up with this data, believes it has the answer.

Two weeks ago the company launched a new campaign, "Care to recycle,” on Tumblr. This is “a gentle reminder to recycle empty containers from the bathroom," explained Paulette Frank, VP of Sustainability for the J&J Family of Consumer Companies. "We hope it leads to a change in the behavior of throwing recyclable bathroom items in the trash and a greater awareness that we can all contribute to a healthy planet,” she added.

The initiative, explains J&J, “includes a video that site visitors are encouraged to share to help spread the word and show their commitment to recycling in the bathroom, along with a number of highly shareable posts that include helpful information and tips.“

Sounds great, right? After all, what could go wrong with an awareness campaign utilizing social media with a focus on Tumblr? In two words: almost everything. While this campaign is full of good intentions I believe that most chances are that it’s going to fail. Here are the reasons why:

 1. Just enhancing awareness won’t make much difference

Enhancing awareness is an important step when it comes to consumer behavior change, but if it’s not followed by other steps it won’t be that effective. “Too often, campaigns announce the need for the new behavior and stop there. In order to work, change needs to start with awareness but then build upon this to establish and reinforce the behavior,” explains Unilever in its Five Levers for Change framework.

In Unilever’s framework, the first step is "make it understood," which is similar to what we see in this campaign. Then it is followed by "make it easy," "make it desirable," "make it rewarding," and "make it a habit." The last four steps, which help create a comprehensive approach to consumer behavior change that is more likely to succeed, are missing from J&J’s campaign.

2. What about convenience?

The campaign is based on the findings of a market research was conducted by Shelton Group, which concluded that “recycling in the bathroom is simply not top of mind for many people.” 40 percent of Americans, according to the research don’t recycle bathroom items at all. Why? “Among the reasons cited, 22 percent reported they had never thought about recycling in the bathroom and 20 percent didn't even know that products in the bathroom are recyclable.”

So the campaign assumes that enhancing the awareness of the 20 percent who don’t realize they can recycle empty shampoo and conditioner plastic bottles will increase recycling rates. I assume the campaign organizers also believe that it might help the 22 percent who never thought about it start thinking in this direction.

But will these 42 percent actually start recycling in the shower once they have the information? I doubt it. One reason is that when it comes to recycling other factors like convenience also make a difference. This seems especially relevant for shower items, where the degree of inconvenience is relatively high as you need to find out if your municipality actually accepts some types of plastic like #4 (LDPE) or #5 (PP) for recycling. Trashing these items is still much easier. So even if people become more aware to the environmental benefits of recycling it doesn’t make recycling more convenient, and hence it’s not clear to what degree it will change people’s behavior.

3. The wrong message to the Tumblr audience

At the center of the campaign there’s a video clip presenting the message that recycling personal care products in your shower can make a big difference – “the planet would be healthier and when kids grow up they will be happier.” And it is mainly populated with happy kids recycling, running and having fun in the outdoors. This is very cute I wonder how well it resonates with the target market, in this case Tumblr users.

According to a report of Pew Research Center “Tumblr is most popular among young adults: 13 percent of 18- to-29-year-olds said they used the service.” Also, Tumblr users are equally divided between men and women. I have a feeling that these millennials, who probably don’t have kids, won’t be as captivated by this ad as they are by ads  like the AXE’s Showerpooling (at least the men in the group) or Chipotle’s Scarecrow.


4. The boredom factor

While the campaign provides a lot of important information I have to say it seems to be lacking the excitement factor – it doesn’t use any gamification elements, there is no real challenge or contest and it’s not even funny. At best it sends visitors to the campaign partners’ website, like Recyclebank where people can earn rewards after learning about recycling, and Net Impact's Small Steps, Big Wins, where students compete to earn points for recycling bathroom products and other social and environmental actions.

Given its focus on social media, the lack of humor or gamification elements in the campaign seem like a missed opportunity. You can’t expect people to do something just because it’s the right thing to do.  If J&J doesn’t believe it, I’m sure Recyclebank will back me up here.

5. It’s too crunchy

In OgilvyEarth’s paper “Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal,” one of the ways Graceann Bennett and Freya Williams offer to close the gap between consumers’ green intentions and green actions is to ‘lose the crunch.’ “Green marketing needs to be more mainstream hip than off -the-grid hippie,” the authors write.

Unfortunately this campaign seems to be very crunchy. With a message like “OUR BABIES WILL INHERIT OUR PLANET. That's why we believe it's our responsibility to take care of our natural resources today,” it looks like an extension of an Earth Day campaign. It doesn’t have the feel and look of successful campaigns preaching similar causes like Wasting Water is Weird or Follow the Frog that are smart, fun, hip and don’t have even a bit of crunchiness in them.

[Image credit: Care to Recycle]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik headshotRaz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

Read more stories by Raz Godelnik