Friday, 15 June 2007

New Article for Mediacat: Making Green Normal


A key theme of my forthcoming book (The Green Marketing Manifesto) is that: It’s not about making normal stuff seem green, it’s about making green stuff seem normal.

Making things seem greener than they are is called ‘greenwashing’. If you pretend to be green then you will likely be found out and criticised. And it’s a real problem with green advertising, because advertising often does highlight an attractive feature, exaggerate, flatter and generally distort what is on offer. That’s expected if you are selling a perfume or other fantasy product. But it is violently rejected in the green sphere (just as it would be for children’s medicines, or people’s savings). It’s too important for spin. People expect what is claimed or suggested to be factually true.

Truly green products, brands and companies – those which can make a big difference - often have the opposite problem. They are seen as strange, unfamiliar and off-putting by mainstream consumers. I call this resistance greenophobia (by analogy with technophobia). People have a kind of inbuilt prejudice against things that are different from what they are used to. As a matter of fact, green products and lifestyles can often be better; healthier, more affordable, more human and even more fun. But if they represent a big shift in behaviour, they can meet resistance.

Making unfamiliar things (which are different and better in the long run, but take some getting used to) seem normal and acceptable is not a new challenge to marketing. In fact it has been one of the key themes of the IT revolution in particular where it has taken 20 years to make computers seem 'friendly', and of launching new product, service and retail concepts in general. It seemed worthwhile to list the main tactics we have been using to tackle this issue:

1. Habit Formation: for instance in the strict sequence of actions on a website, the catchphrases and formats in a TV show. Routine is comforting and order-restoring. Deliberate repetition helps people get used to things fast. Helping form these habits can also involve pledges, regimes or other forms of commitment. One new UK site offers to 'nag' you by email until you have done this month's green action.

2. The Herd Instinct. Seeing groups of others doing something new inclines people to join in. There are many ways to encourage this: online community, social gatherings, experience and events, seeing the following in news reporting, badges you see on people on street, friends invite you to join something. The big eco concerts this summer will have this sort of effect, for a start.

3. Role models: there is a part of our brains (the mirror neurons) which helps us physically imagine being someone who we are watching. It’s what makes us feel like dancing after watching a dance performance. Similar is the effect of identifying with a character in a story. The public figures who visibly cycle to work and so on, can have this effect. But more important is the people like us we meet online, the bloggers who write about going green in a normal domestic setting for instance, or the people we see at the school gate.

4. A familiar context. When something is very new, one of the things marketing is adept at doing is associating it with a much more familiar idea. It could be a word, image, or whole concept which is added. The notion of ‘carbon diets’ is one example. Carbon emissions is a new concept, but we all know what a diet is.

5. Buzz. Ideas which spread are the key influence on people’s lifestyle decisions today. When you hear about something from a number of trusted sources it tends to get accepted as ‘normal’ very quickly. Little tricks like ways for blogs and emails to carry your idea, reviews and comments from other users and so on can help. Better still is asking people to recruit others, something many of the new green community sites are doing.

6. Education. Many green principles are common sense adjustments to silly habits; we don’t need to be so wasteful. Explaining why to do things is a lasting way to bring about change. For instance did you know 15% of the energy in your house is used while you are asleep, mainly because of the devices you haven’t switched off? Or that leaving your phone charger plugged in the whole time can add 10% to your power bill?

7. Evangelism, enthusiasm, converts. Some people do ‘get religion’ over these issues. It may because they have had a child, or a health scare, or in some way have paused to think about the future. These people want an outlet for action. Many fall into activism, getting angry and criticizing stuff. But they are also willing recruits to awareness generating, positive actions. They are potential green brand ambassadors, who will tell hundreds of others to buy your product.

8. Norms. Simple rules of behaviour – often ‘unwritten rules’ - can become accepted conventions. These can be powerful in shaping behaviour. A certain type of product (the classic example in the UK was the fur coat) can become unacceptable. They can also be positive norms, like remembering to recycle in an office. People do it because they feel it is expected.

9. Reality Design: creating a tangible interaction, or perception or experience. For instance the new home energy monitors launching soon in the UK give you visual feedback (the equivalent of the speedometer in the car). Having a measure (eg counting calories), or a criterion (eco labels), or a new category (eg green bank account) can have the same effect. We can only manage what we notice.

10. Act first, think later. In many parts of life it is easier to change what we do than what we think. If you give people one energy efficient light bulb (as Yahoo did in the USA and Sky in the UK) they will usually go on buy their own for the rest of the house. Having one in their house has enabled them to get used to the whole idea. It answers all the questions which in reality stem from fear of the unknown. It’s also based on an effect in psychology called cognitive dissonance; the tendency to align our beliefs with our behaviour. Walking people through a new behaviour, having a guide or coach can also help them get used to it.

Of course a list of tactics is the easy bit. It is still going to take a lot of good ideas to break through. 75% of people in a recent survey in the UK had high green concerns, but low levels of green actions. Closing the gap is everyone’s job; governments, NGOs and corporations. But I certainly think a bit of marketing skill can help. We are the people who actually know how to change people’s lifestyles and make new stuff seem normal.


mark E said...

Great stuff, John.

Asi said...

ahh...the million dollar to move people from attitude to behaviour, or from awareness to action.

looks like we're on the right track now where (almost) every business is jumping on the greenwagon (beware greenwash!)

keep up the good stuff


John Grant said...

...not today unfortunately, a huge 'debate' kicked off at my financial services conference about the reality of the problem, any consumer willingness to act and whether this is all relevant. The more insidious middle position being 'CSR lite' where environment barely features and any nice news story about a community scheme applies. Lots of support & passion on the pro- side too too, but a reminder that there are people on/off the wagon still. Still, last time I came to this event people werent shouting "that's bollocks" in response to what others were saying.

I've got 3 days to work on them too.


ps yes beware greenwash

plus you have prob noticed that web 2.0 and effective lifestyle change are often working to very similar principles, engagement strategies & agendas

Chris Pearce said...

Hi John

Same subject, but different conference. I was in a meeting with our new Borders client today and they were raving about your presentation at a Book Sellers event you spoke at recently at Foyles. Funnily enough I raised their approach on all issues green a couple of weeks ago and got a luke warm response from certain quarters - more enthusiastic in others. (Book recycling etc) I understand you might be coming in to speak to them about possible approaches they could take, which is brilliant news. Well Done (again!)


CarbonImpacts - Paul said...

Hi John
Great stuff. It does seem that that if we can work on changing the narrative of the green movement then this may go some way to create effective action.

"Carbon Neutrality" seems a little old hat and refers to stabilising the planet when we should be looking to heal the harm and put more in than we take out - "Carbon Positive” seems better.

In the same way, "Carbon Offsetting” seems to imply that things are ok if you engage in that activity. Perhaps "Carbon Compensation” would be better to ensure we remember that we still retain a responsibility

Finally no more "Carbon Footprints” please. I leave footprints in the snow and quite like them. I don’t like shadows and that’s what we could refer to - "Carbon Shadow"

Keep up the great work John!

mark b said...

Hi John

Really interesting stuff.

Following on from asi's comment about the move from attitude to behaviour, did anyone hear about the Lights Out London initiative that ran on Capital Radio yesterday, encouraging listeners to switch off lights for an hour from 8pm?

Got me wondering how brands or other media could mobilise their consumers behind the green agenda in a similar way.