Green marketing should focus on how consumers respond to social pressure from those around them, rather than trying to force individual consumers to change their habits, according to brand consultant and Environmental Leader columnist Guy Champniss.
Writing for the Guardian, Champniss says discussions on sustainable consumption have tended to focus on the antagonistic relationship between people’s intrinsic and extrinsic values. Efforts have focused on forcing the individual to reconnect with intrinsic values, such as concern for the greater good, says Champniss, who is co-author of Brand Valued: How Socially Valued Brands Hold the Key to a Sustainable Future and Business Success.
But it could potentially be easier to take a “social intuitionist” approach. Champniss says researchers have begun to argue that people are far better at figuring out the right thing to do based on the behavior of those around them, rather than figuring it out on their own.
For example, in an experiment by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, the developers of social identity theory, the researchers randomly selected individuals to form a group. The individuals knew they were selected at random and were not given a specific purpose. But group behavior soon emerged, with members displaying higher co-operation with each other than with people outside the group.
Champniss notes that this behavior emerged, not because of attempts to directly challenge individuals’ values, but rather because the behavior felt “intuitively right.” Efforts to encourage sustainable consumer choices could use such a phenomenon to encourage a deeper understanding of the effects such choices have on others.
This relates to marketing research to understand communities that form around well-loved brands, such as Harley Davidson. In the past such communities have formed only around brands that highly involve customers or provide a particular rich experience. But this may not need to be the case in the future, Champniss says, if the mere existence of a group is as or more important than its purpose.
Champniss says initial studies he is running with consumers across markets and categories have found a repeat of patterns established in the Tajfel-Turner study. But he warns that the research has only just begun, and there is much more to learn about how social values can be promoted inside and outside these groups.
In a recent Environmental Leader column, Champniss argued that when a behavior is labeled as environmentally responsible, consumers tend to make other socially responsible decisions – even if their initial motivation wasn’t environmental. Someone taking the train to work because they like to read the paper along the way could get “tagged” with a pro-environment label, and will then be more likely to make future decisions to benefit the environment.
In another recent Environmental Leader column, AECOM Technology Corp. chief sustainability officer and vice president Gary Lawrence said there is no single underlying basis for the choices that humans make, noting that our choices stem from a mixture of self-interest, concerns about our own morality, and sympathy and respect for others.
Describing the emotional charge brought about by recent attempts to develop affordable housing, Lawrence argued that developers must find a way to balance that sympathy, respect and moral concern with perceived self-interest.
Picture credit: kcvensel