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New Report Offers Advice on Selling Sustainability, But Is it Right?

Raz Godelnik headshotWords by Raz Godelnik
Leadership & Transparency
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Why is selling sustainability so difficult?

After all “sustainable products, services and behaviors are the future. They are better for business, consumers and the planet, and increasingly consumers are asking for them.”

In addition, “93 percent of global consumers want to see more of the brands they use support worthy social and/or environmental issues, and three out of four teenagers say they want to buy more sustainable products.”

This question and quotes open a new report from BSR and Futerra, aiming to provide an effective framework that marketers struggling with this challenge could use.

However, for marketers losing sleep over the question of how to sell sustainable products and services and wondering if this is the report they’ve been looking for – well, let me just say this, report is not the equivalent of the proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. In other words, your troubles are [probably] not over yet.

Still, the report, titled Selling Sustainability: Primer for Marketers, is a worth read for anyone interested in fusing marketing and sustainability. This is, after all, “the output of a long-standing collaborative effort with the Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group and our eight member brands – AT&T, Carlsberg, eBay, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Waste Management.”

At the heart of the report is framework including three components: offering consumers more value from sustainability, building functional, emotional and social benefits, and taking into consideration that timing matters.

The first component is value. The authors of the report write: “For most sustainable products and behavior campaigns the hard question of 'what’s in it for the consumer?' is still largely unanswered.” To create and deliver greater value for consumers out of sustainable products, marketers need to reduce barriers (i.e. lack of skills, motivation, infrastructure or beliefs) and generate more benefits (functional, social, emotional).

A good example would be electric cars. To make electric cars more valuable for consumers, companies need to reduce barriers like price (see the example of the 2016 Chevy Volt) and range anxiety (building a network of high-speed charging stations) as well as to increase the benefits such as enhancing their fuel-cost savings (functional) or making them status symbols (social).

The second component is an elaboration of the first one, explaining in more detail what functional, social and emotional benefits actually are in the context of sustainability. While this is not part of the report, I believe the best way to explain it is through the lens of the ‘job-to-be-done’ concept, as “designing an innovative customer value proposition begins with genuinely understanding the customer's 'job-to-be-done.'”

This concept is based on the idea that people don’t really buy products or services. They “hire” them to do a job, or as Prof. Theodore Levitt famously put it: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole.” There are three types of jobs-to-be-done: functional (getting a specific task done or achieving a functional goal), social (how the consumer wants to be perceived by others), and emotional (how the customer feels or wants to feel).

The report’s advice to marketers is to think about creating value by reducing barriers and offering benefits, using these three levels – functional, beneficial and emotional. Then, it suggests, “your value proposition should emerge stronger and clearer.”

The final component is timing – making sure that you reach consumers in the right time and the right place. The right time seems to be important in particular because, as the report explains: “Receptiveness to sustainability messages fluctuates throughout the day. For behavior change campaigns it’s especially important to track these changes. The best moment to affect a habit, like recycling, is to reach the consumer at their point of behavior (PoB).”

Now, the question is whether applying this framework could help marketers overcome “the difference between what consumers say in surveys, and what they go on to actually do.” I believe the answer is no.

Here’s why: First, I think the starting point is not the right one. I don’t think the surveys the report quotes actually reflect the public’s attitudes, or that the only problem is that we didn’t find a way yet to translate these attitudes into action. I believe we need to take findings like “93 percent of global consumers want to see more of the brands they use support worthy social and/or environmental issues” with a grain of salt. Sure, most people would like that, just like most people would like to see world peace, but what does it actually mean in reality? Unfortunately, not much.

Second, reality is messy and complex, as we could learn from a recent report in the New York Times, in which writer Lawrence Ulrich argues, “With bargain gasoline prices putting more money in the pockets of Americans, owners of hybrids and electric vehicles are defecting to sport utility vehicles and other conventional models powered only by gasoline.”

Sure, we can address these situations in terms of the need to reduce barriers (i.e. make hybrid and electric cars cheaper) and find how they can offer more value (functional, social or emotional). Yet, I believe that to truly change consumer behavior at scale, when it comes to sustainability marketers need more than that – they need to think in terms of changing the culture, not their products.

Based on Curt Lewin’s proposal that a person’s behavior is a function of both their personality and their environment (B = f (P,E)) I would suggest that any attempt to reach significant results in selling sustainability should focus on a more systematic attempt to redesign our environment. Anything less than that will lead to incremental results at best.

The reason is simple: In a reality where consumers are bombarded with ‘business as usual’ messages that identify unsustainable consumption with happiness, providing a message saying the opposite is like swimming against the current. It could work in some cases, but in most cases the current wins.

Marketers that truly want to sell sustainability need to think about how they can design a new culture and change the environment in which we live. It is probably more challenging than just redesigning a product or even a business model, but it's probably the only way to sell sustainability to the masses.

Image credit: The Sustainable Lifestyles Frontier Group

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.

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