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Direct Line brand boss: it’ll take one part science and two parts marketing to save the world

Direct Line's Piers Newson-Smith on marketing role in reversing climate change direction

Struck by a random urge to broaden my mind, I waltzed into a newsagent this week looking for a magazine on something about which I’m ignorant. Skipping past Guns and Ammo (too shoot-y) and a nature special on insects (too many cockroaches), I eventually settled on New Scientist.

Perfect, I thought. If I pick out a few choice quotes and indiscreetly read it at my desk, I’ll be transformed from mild-mannered brand man to the next Stephen Hawking in a heartbeat.

Except it didn’t play out like that. Instead, I was grabbed by the brain with the toughest marketing problem I’ve ever seen.

It stemmed from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) stark warning that we are out of time to take action to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees. Which is a big deal, because after that, we are going to hell in a handcart within the lifespan of our grandchildren.

This is a straight-up attitudinal and behavioural change challenge. “For individuals, that means making sacrifices and sticking to them forever”, read the leader. Followed later by “the populist revolt is hostile... populism thrives by offering simplistic solutions to complex problems”.

A few pages later, the Center for International Climate Research chimed in with, “Even if it is technically possible, without aligning the technical, political and social aspects of feasibility, it’s not going to happen.”

The technical bit is down to science. And, with the greatest respect towards Byron Sharp, marketing science isn’t going to be much cop here; it’s best left to his test tube touting cousins.

But driving the political and social change needed is slap bang in our remit. This is a classic marketing challenge. How do you make people change their short-term behaviour for a long-term benefit?

Humans are hardwired for short-termism. In “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman describes an “affect heuristic”, where people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world.

It’s a relatively simple marketing task to persuade people to upgrade mobile phones every couple of years without a care for the long-term cost. Because the instant gratification of a slightly shinier model completely eclipses the fact that it’s just cost them the best part of a grand over the next two years.

Getting people to stop smoking, is a far tougher sell. If you enjoy a quick ciggie, you’ll probably down-weight your belief in how bad it is for you. Even semi-artistic shots of blackened lungs on packs in place of a logo struggle to change that.

Sadly, saving the planet is a marketing challenge many magnitudes harder. The brief is to make the entire population of Earth to give up the things that they like permanently, and quickly enough, to keep global warming below those all-important 1.5 degrees. Which includes cutting out most fossil fuel and slashing energy consumption. And lowering expectations for economic growth. It’s not exactly the sexiest of propositions.

In short, we need to find a way to get people to choose to give up most of the things that they like, now and forever, in return for an intangible benefit that they may not even see in their lifetime.

Our industry has some irons in the fire. The sustainability ethos at Unilever proves that businesses can do good for the environment whilst going about their business. Indeed, they’ve published the stats to show that it drives brand growth. And the likes of Greenpeace aren’t shrinking violets about getting the world to sit up and take notice.

Ultimately, this is a brief with no client, no budget, and enough target audiences to make the biggest brains in planning melt faster than the polar ice caps.

If any industry has the smarts to convince consumers – and corporates – to sacrifice the things that they like, it’s us. That makes us accountable. If we create a demand for change, politicians will eventually have no choice but to take action. Although the orange chap in the White House is probably a lost cause.

There’s no obvious solution, but I can think of a couple of places we can start. Where our customers are already want to budge, like reducing single-use plastic, we can push the brands we represent to do so. Where they don’t, we can pool insight and brain power to come up with new ways to convince them.

Ultimately, though, we all have an obligation to use our creativity to find ways to tackle this. Otherwise I might as well read those magazines on guns and cockroaches. At least then I’ll know what I’ve got to look forward in a world somewhere between Mad Max and Waterworld.

Piers Newson-Smith is the head of brand at the Direct Line Group and is a judge for The Drum's Creative Out of Home awards. He tweets on @PiersNS

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