an innovative path to a greener future

14th January 2015

Chris Sherwin at Seymourpowell explains why innovation is a better route to sustainable behaviour than communications

Behaviour change is the new green marketing frontier as we move people towards sustainable lifestyles, but what’s a marketer to do about this: bet your money on communications and social media, or build behaviour change into your products or services? Though a less well-trodden route, we believe that innovating with your products and services is our only real great green hope. Here’s why:

greener than white

In the world of ‘green’ and ‘sustainability’ marketing (let’s just say green from now on), Ariel’s ‘Turn to 30’ campaign remains the most referenced case. In asking consumers to reduce washing temperature, save energy and carbon emissions, it hit the sweet spot.

It was good for business – reportedly helping Ariel regain market share; good for consumers – lower temperatures can save UK households £130 per year; and good for the planet – the average UK wash temperature went down by three degrees during the campaign, while washes at 30 degrees rose from three per cent to 17 per cent. A real win-win.

A less recognised ‘win’ was Ariel following Turn to 30 with the development and launch of Ariel Excel Gel – a liquid concentrate (fewer ingredients, packaging, transport), with dosage control (controlled consumption), in a top-down format (less product wastage), that washes as low as 15 degrees (less energy use and carbon emissions). It’s true that Ariel had no monopoly on these innovations, as others were active on these issues too, but they were certainly the highest profile and most integrated with these green features.

In a microcosm, here’s the central green marketing dilemma: do you back communication or innovation for your brand’s sustainability efforts? Both Ariel’s approaches focused on changing behaviour – the former highly effective advertising campaign asked people to change their behaviour via communications, the latter had it ‘designed in’. It will be interesting to see which is the longer-term behavioural game changer – the communications initiative of Turn to 30 or the innovation of Excel Gel – though with Excel Gel reportedly now making up one-third of Ariel’s sales and 40 per cent of its value, the green innovation route certainly looks more sustainable.

sustainable behaviour in focus

Brands started to look at consumption, usage and behaviour because the largest part of their footprint is often when in the hands of consumers. Over 80 per cent of the environmental impacts of detergents are governed by when and how people wash. 

This places sustainability firmly in the hands of marketers and innovators. As a result, brands have defaulted to influencing sustainable behaviours through a communications-led approach via brand activation.

Thus they turn to their advertising, communications or PR agencies, which control the brand’s interaction with customers. It’s understandable, as it’s how brands have acted for decades when faced with new issues, or pressures like health concerns or social media. It’s also limiting and flawed, as it won’t really work for the brand, the customer or the planet. Here are five reasons why.

it can promote laziness

Asking people to change their behaviour can be an excuse for brands to push responsibility on to consumers and do little themselves. Funding local community projects – which many brands do – doesn’t require brands to change real, material issues, other than reshuffling marketing budgets.

it can be contradictory

Might consumers see contradictions in a toothpaste or cleaning brand asking them to ‘turn off the tap’, when the very same brands spent the last 40 years convincing them they need various types of cleaning implements or toothpaste/mouthwash, etc?

it's short-termist

Communication campaigns are often short-lived or seasonal, linked to brand planning cycles; while sustainable behavioural issues, like high carbon diets, simply can’t be cracked by a single campaign. Consumer interest in green issues can waver too, but they are interested in doing things better, which innovation can deliver.

it tackles behaviour indirectly

Though emotionally appealing, communications simply do not, and cannot, engage consumers directly in their everyday behaviour or actions, as they are non-physical and immaterial. Consumers are often busy and time-poor, so far better to seamlessly weave this into the product and behaviour itself, rather than giving them something else to think about.

it doesn't deliver breakthroughs

Many now believe that, for true sustainability, we must go beyond our current green tweaks to existing ‘stuff’, with improvements that could reduce carbon emissions or use of resources across a brand’s total lifecycle by as much as 95 per cent. It’s almost inconceivable that we can communicate our way out of trouble on this: breakthrough innovation is required.

It may be harder and more time-consuming for brands to change their formulation, packaging, supply chain, production line or business model than it is to change a communications plan or website, but change it they must. Innovation will be the key to these green breakthroughs.

moving green beyond communications

There’s no limit to where this ‘innovate rather than communicate’ model can be applied. Take the UK Government’s largely unsuccessful Act on CO2 campaign, which aimed to raise awareness of “the effects of climate change, the impact people are having on the environment and what you can do to help”. Now check out the recently launched Nest Learning Thermostat created by ex-iPod designers. It’s smart, beautiful, cool, learns your behaviour to optimise energy use, and turns itself off when you’re away.

The mind boggles at how the £10m Act on CO2 budget could aid innovations like this. Think too what innovation could do for the other green behaviours that consumers must adopt, such as composting, water saving, line-drying clothes, eco-driving and reducing food waste.

a green platform

As with Ariel, communications can be an excellent springboard or complement, but innovation really is the best route for green marketing and sustainable behaviour.

Redirecting focus, priorities and budgets upstream is healthier for your brand, for behaviour and for the planet.

Reported by Chris Sherwin Head of Sustainability, Seymourpowell