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Agencies Brand Strategy Sustainability

How brands can ‘nudge’ consumers into positive behavior change on sustainability

By Simon Collister | Director, the human understanding lab



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February 23, 2023 | 7 min read

Unlimited Group’s Simon Collister looks at data from his agency’s Human Understanding Lab about people’s thoughts and actions around sustainability. Read on for his tips on ‘nudging’ people in the right direction.

Two people in snowclothes and ice skates; one is pushing the other forward

Want to encourage sustainable behavior? Take a look at nudge theory, says Unlimited Group / Lucas van Oort via Unsplash

There has been much publicity in recent months about marketing’s negative impact on attempts to achieve a more sustainable future. From questions about advertising’s carbon footprint to taking on fossil fuel giants as clients – or perhaps it’s the most fundamental critique of all: promoting greater, not always necessary, consumption.

While not seeking to dismiss these critiques, what if we shifted our attention from these headline-grabbing negative stories and refocused it on marketing’s most powerful asset, consumers?

Given brands’ ability to creatively engage and influence customers, can we use this power to create a more positive and optimistic narrative, and drive change for the better?

Whose responsibility is sustainability?

If we turn to recent research carried out by Unlimited’s Human Understanding Lab, then it appears the answer is a resounding yes.

We discovered that, in the UK, less than half of consumers (45%) think that it is the responsibility of ‘others’ to solve sustainability issues. And more importantly, using neuroscience techniques, we found that only 18% of these people thought this with a strong emotional conviction. This insight into people’s deeper, subconscious feeling suggests that most people feel a personal responsibility to solve sustainability issues.

We also used behavioral science modeling to find that two-thirds of UK consumers (68%) are already planning or thinking about living more sustainably.

Moreover, three-quarters of people believe it is the responsibility of brands to solve sustainability issues.

This is good news for brands. It shows us that consumers feel able and willing to make a difference for the future and that as an industry, marketing can use its influence to tap into that need and focus on enabling change in wider society.

From thought to action

But how can brands help move consumers from wanting to live sustainably to actually doing so? Using behavioral science ‘nudges’, there are a number of key steps that brands should take to help shift consumer attitudes and behaviors.

First, take a good-news, positive approach to sustainability in brand strategy and messaging. Doom and gloom, or shaming, narratives are counterproductive.

Second, listen to and understand customers. Recognize where they are on their journey to greater sustainability. Neuro- and behavioral science research techniques can also help brands identify the deeper, sub-conscious drivers (or barriers) to change among customers.

Brands should adopt a tailored approach to customer segments, based on one of three tasks: support, inform or engage. Marketing should be used to support consumers ready to make a difference by providing plenty of opportunities to act sustainably.

Brands can inform consumers planning to change their behavior by giving them more information, tips and hacks to act. Even when consumers are skeptical about sustainability, brands can engage them with a positive story (but they must make sure they first connect with them around their own values – and expect to make small, slow gains).

We know from behavioral science that using high-profile or public figures can help influence people to take positive actions. Brands should choose carefully and make sure they have secured positive long-term arrangements. Changing attitudes and behaviors can take time.

In this era, brands should be transparent about the costs of sustainability. Some consumers are happy to pay more if they know where the costs are making a difference; others need to hear that living sustainably doesn’t have to be expensive (and can even save money).

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Finally, marketing departments must check carefully for greenwashing at every stage of strategy. Authenticity, brand fit and transparency should be core criteria for achieving behavior change.

Some of these nudges may be easier to implement than others, and there remains the challenging economic context in which marketing departments (and consumers) currently find themselves.

But the fact remains that ensuring a more sustainable future is a vital project for the industry to accelerate. Now’s the time for brands to take a new approach to sustainability. Consumers are ready to change, and they’re looking to brands to help them make a difference.

Agencies Brand Strategy Sustainability

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UNLIMITED is the UK’s leading conversion agency. Our mission is to create genuine business advantage for clients, and we do this by uncovering behaviour-led insights from our Human Understanding Lab.

We are a fully integrated agency group with Human Understanding at the heart. Our four, award-winning divisions; marketing, communications, insight & analytics and digital, drive our creativity and define our solutions.

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