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Raz Godelnik headshot

Sustainability Needs a Broccoli-Style Extreme Makeover

By Raz Godelnik

Last weekend Michael Moss wrote in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine about a challenge he made to ad agency Victors & Spoils: get people to want to buy and eat more broccoli. The result was a great campaign that gave broccoli an extreme makeover any vegetable would dream about.

This made me wonder – if it can work for broccoli (well, at least in theory – this was a fictitious campaign, not a real one), could it also work for sustainability? After all, broccoli and sustainability are very similar when it comes to the demand side – we know they’re good for us, but from a variety of reasons they’re not that appealing and therefore most us are don’t give them the love and respect they deserve.

It's clear that businesses can’t shift into a more sustainable future without having consumers on board. As Paul Polman once said (referring to Unilever), “If we are going to halve our environmental impact and help a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being, we have to inspire consumers to choose more sustainable products and adopt more sustainable habits when they cook, clean and wash with our aspirations.

But how do you inspire consumers to adopt sustainability? Let’s look at the broccoli campaign and see what lessons we can apply to sustainability's makeover.

Awesome wins, good loses – “For all the evidence piling up on behalf of the benefits of eating more produce, it has become clear that neither children nor adults will do so unless they want to, and preaching about health benefits doesn’t make people want to do anything,” Moss writes. In other words, in our imperfect world, where irrational decision making dominates, regular benefits may be less important than the coolness factor. Hence in order to win over consumers, broccoli needed to be portrayed as a fun choice, not necessarily a better one.

Interestingly, one option that was brought up by Victors & Spoils’ Ari Levi, one of team’s associate creative directors, was that the canniest strategy might be to embrace broccoli’s negatives. “Maybe there’s something cool in not being cool,” he said. “Accepting broccoli for what it is.” Eventually, the team disbanded this approach, understanding the limits of actually admitting that broccoli is indeed uncool.

Give the masses an Alpha type campaign– even though we have research showing that “traditionally feminine leadership and values are now more popular than the macho paradigm of the past,”  when it comes to marketing, the inner lumberjack still rules. (Think Hungry Man TV dinners, Brawny paper towels and Mr. Clean cleaning products). Appealing to the macho is especially important when it comes to underdogs like broccoli.

The team needed to give broccoli “a new attitude,” as Ari Levi put it, something that says, “I’m tired of being pushed around.” Hence they came up with the Alpha Vegetable campaign. It included ideas like mocked up billboards that exclaimed “Goes Great With a Side of Steak,” possible Nascar endorsement, or even a stunt in which they lifted it by helicopter over a volcano and roasted it to demonstrate “Extreme Brocking.”

Overall, the macho paradigm might be a good fit for sustainability because of the notion that green is too feminine and therefore men don’t feel comfortable adopting it. I think that it’s actually a shame that sustainability should reinforce the macho paradigm rather than helping to eliminating it, but as they say, When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In Rome, whether we like it or not, masculinity still rules.

Pick up an enemy – the team’s AHA! moment, Moss writes, came when they saw that broccoli sells much better than kale, yet kale is now more the more hip and trendy veggie. They decided to pick a fight with kale and the result were slogans like “Broccoli: Now 43 Percent Less Pretentious Than Kale” and “What Came First, Kale or the Bandwagon?” and “Eat Fad Free: Broccoli v. Kale.”

Moss likes the idea that kale was picked up rather than French fries, arguing that the selection mimicked the great soda war between Pepsi and Coca-Cola that eventually brought many more consumers to both companies. Picking up an enemy from processed food could also be effective (think of Chipotle's choice in the recent ad campaign), especially if you want to reach the mainstream. After all, as Tony Soprano taught us if you really want respect you fight the toughest guy around, not the easiest one to pick up on.

You need to fight on all fronts – the challenge doesn’t start and end with creative ads. As Moss notes, junk food wins over fresh vegetables like broccoli  for many reasons including the appeal of the packaging, the grab-and-go portability, the everlasting preservatives and the low cost. “It also may be undeniable that the crunch of a piece of broccoli is never going to be as satisfying as what food-industry scientists refer to as the “mouth-feel” of a potato chip,” he writes.

The  Victors & Spoils campaign actually didn’t go that far but the point Moss makes is important because it shows how high a makeover needs to aim to create a substantial change in people’s consumption patterns. If  "we're going to have to make today's status quo obsolete because [what we're making tomorrow] is better,” as Nike’s Hannah Jones suggests, we need to make sure that whatever sustainable alternative we offer it is better on all fronts. Otherwise, no matter how smart and creative our extreme makeover is, business as usual will keep winning.

[Image credit: Victors & Spoils]

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 headshot

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