A few years ago, many of us believed sustainability was a business shoo-in. Sexy, shiny and full of exotic new benefits (three bottom lines!) it would certainly attract hordes of consumers.
Fast forward to today. Yes, consumers are buying sustainably produced wares and services. But no, we haven't seen a tidal wave of demand.
In fact, consumers seem particularly fickle when it comes to buying green, as demonstrated by the recent SunChips packaging setback.
Why the hesitation? Although you can point to factors as simple as lagging product performance and price premiums, that doesn't go far enough. There is a lack of connection between planet and people when it comes to marketing green.
And how do you close that gap? For a start, skip the windmill.
Let's Talk About Me.
Ask a roomful of people if they support climate-friendly technologies like recycling and solar power, and a fair majority will nod vigorously.
But don't confuse agreement with passion. It's easy to say you like sustainability. I have racks of research saying Americans like sustainability. Liking sustainability is akin to liking a Facebook page -- nothing more than an anemic thumbs-up.
Catherine Greener addressed this like / love disconnect at the recent GreenBiz State of Green Business Forum in San Francisco.
Greener, former VP at Saatchi S, understands what motivates people to passionate action.
She believes individuals act primarily on issues that impact their personal well-being, their family, and their immediate community.
Unless those needs are tended to, most individuals won't commit to causes that promise to benefit the world at large.
Greener illustrated this disconnect with an example from an employee sustainability program in the automotive industry. In this particular case, none of the workers on the production floor were recycling their aluminum cans -- recycling bins were contaminated with burger wraps, strapping and old newspapers. So the green team took a new tack, crafting a story that appealed directly to the employees' personal priorities. It went like this:
• aluminum cans are recycled into engine blocks, and
• those engine blocks cost less than blocks manufactured from mined aluminum, and
• that lowers the price of cars, and
• that means people buy cars, and
• that means greater job security.
The result? Recycling bins overflowing with aluminum cans.
Empathize With Unbelievers
John Marshall Roberts has done groundbreaking work in the psychology of sustainability. Using a model based on Clare Graves' research into worldviews, Roberts postulates that people see the world through fundamentally different eyes. Some of us, for example, feel most comfortable in a world of absolutes; others believe the world is a game in which they're a player; still others see the world as a complex interconnected system.
Roberts asks us to imagine the result when an environmental message is crafted by a systems thinker - one who sees an interconnected world - but targeted at an absolutist audience. At best, the message will fall on deaf ears. At worst, it will make absolutist listeners absolutely hostile.
The solution, Roberts believes, is to use empathy when communicating. That starts with understanding and accepting your listener's perspective, then crafting your message through the filter of their worldview. With empathy, unnecessary barriers can be eliminated, and unlikely supporters will often surprise you and rally to your cause.
How To Make Me Care
So how do you build a brand with green credentials that consumers actually care about?
First, a no brainer - you need to walk the talk. If you aren't supporting your green brand with transparently green actions, you will almost certainly be found out. And it won't be pretty.
Second, it's vital to empathize with your audience, and craft a message that highlights a personal benefit in supporting your program or product. When they believe you're giving them something of value, they will return the favor with their support.
Finally, prepare for resistance. This is a new frontier, rife with misperceptions and negative bias. Even the best crafted message may hit a speed bump or two. This is normal - deal with it.
Speaking of resistance, I wanted to finish with a few helpful tips on managing pushback from organizational transformation consultant Andy Satter.
1. Create a compelling WIIFM story. WIIFM stands for "What's in it for me".
2. Build a compelling business case that's based on verifiable data. Connect your efforts to the bottom line. Better yet, connect it to the triple bottom line of profit, people, and planet. And the best case scenario - connect it to the bottom line of your listener.
3. Put a face on your efforts. For example, talking about melting polar ice caps is one thing, but showing a stranded polar bear is another. Again, the home run is putting a face from your target's community in the communication. Instead of endangered polar bears, you might want to talk about the impact of local pollution on your community's kids.
4. Actively solicit input from all key stakeholders who will be impacted by your efforts. Meet with them early, often, and on their turf. Understand their perspective, and incorporate it into your message.
5. Separate the resistance you encounter from the individual. Don't personalize it.
6. Break down the change into smaller sized chunks or bites.
7. Celebrate victories, large and small.
8. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
9. Last, and potentially most important, make it engaging and memorable.