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Sustainability: How marketers can take the lead

7th Dec 2009
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MyCustomer.com

Social marketing messages need to be more than just well-intentioned, says Mark Stuart - they also need to be clear enough to enable customers to make the right decision.

Climate change remains near the top of any organisation’s agenda, but as each headline becomes more dramatic than the last, the possibility of ‘green fatigue’ begins to set in. Compounding this is a sense on the part of individuals that although they want to do their bit and reduce their personal carbon footprint as far as possible, a feeling of futility begins to appear; it doesn’t matter whether or not I change my behaviour, because it doesn’t make any material difference.

There’s a significant role for marketers to play here, to address these twin issues. This is partly because marketers are good communicators – and a lot of the issues surrounding climate change are communication ones, as opposed to a few years ago where the concerns were to raise awareness. Secondly, marketers are the closest members of any organisation to the customer – so understanding the customer’s concerns and identifying insights from their feedback, can lead the innovative company towards solutions that will help move us towards the more sustainable business environment that is needed.

The first argument in favour of better communication to customers is that there are several of misconceptions about how people ought to change their behaviours, and how effectively they can do so. Let’s look at flying. Contrary to popular belief, flying is not, in itself, the worst contributor to climate change. It is, however, the fastest growing. It’s right to try to fly less; yet, human nature being what it is, it is unlikely that people will stop flying to the degree needed to avoid the 2 degree temperature increase that is widely accepted as the ‘tipping point’ for irreversible climate change.

Instead, what’s needed is a portfolio of behaviour change. First, more investment in innovation - to develop greener aviation fuels, and develop aircraft that use less fuel per passenger. (The new Airbus A380 deserves some recognition in this respect). Secondly, urge travellers to take fewer holidays in the year, that last longer – as opposed to lots of short breaks. Third, marketers have a role to play to emphasise the benefits of holidaying nearer home. We’ve seen this strategy work as an answer to difficult economic times, but it hasn’t been argued loudly in terms of the benefits it will bring to the environment. When the economy gets back to its former strength, those messages about the positive benefits and advantages of staying nearer home will still need to be heard.

Locally sourced produce

An issue like buying food locally is also not as simple as it first appears, and marketers need to get their facts straight when communicating choices to customers. It might seem an obvious, and well-intended, choice to buy locally grown food, rather than food transported from abroad. However, depending on the item you’re buying, the overall carbon footprint of an imported item (such as tomatoes) may be lower than locally grown ones, that have been artificially heated.

Similarly, food that’s been grown or reared locally and then stored for several months, to be available out of season, might have a greater carbon footprint than one that has been grown fresh, then imported. None of this is to say that customers should give up at the point where things become too complex to calculate. Instead, there’s a real role for marketing to communicate more transparently a ‘carbon total’ that could be simply displayed on packaging, to help customers make more informed choices rather than the assumptions – which again, it must be emphasised, are well-intentioned, but occasionally inaccurate. Eating less meat, for instance, would be just as good a change in behaviour, in terms of reducing carbon emissions, as flying less; and a lot easier for many people to subscribe to. Yet this message is not widely communicated.

The recent 10:10 campaign is a further example of this issue. From a raising awareness and changing behaviour point of view, the campaign is excellent. In surveys, when customers are asked, ‘would you buy a more environmentally friendly car if the prices were equal’, most people answer ‘yes’. This seems a positive move. What it doesn’t communicate, however, is that it in most circumstances it would still be better to maintain an existing car, than buy a new one.

The UK government’s car scrappage scheme, designed to help car manufacturers out of difficult economic conditions, doesn’t really take this issue into account. It shows, if nothing else, that government has choices to make that are as difficult as those of consumers: wanting to help the economy on the one hand, can lead to decisions that are less beneficial to the environment on the other. More transparent communication of such dilemmas would be a better approach, it could be argued, than yes/no surveys that could persuade people to go out and buy brand new, but more efficient, vehicles when they don’t need to.

Even where a seemingly watertight environmental message is put forward – such as the current discussions around a high-speed rail link between London and Glasgow – the pros and cons are by no means obvious. The carbon cost of investing in the infrastructure, track and new trains will be high. The speed of the trains – which needs to be high, or there will be no incentive to stop flying – means that they will burn a lot more fuel than conventional trains do. Getting a clear comparison of carbon costs is not easy, and we would argue that someone – and it could well be the marketer – needs to fill this gap in communications, putting forward clear messages in ways that enable customers to make the right decision, rather than merely a well-intended one. 

Mark Stuart is head of research at The Chartered Institute of Marketing.
 

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