We’ve all faced this great moral dilemma whenever we stay in a nice hotel. The little sign in the bathroom reads, “Please help us protect the environment and conserve water by reusing your towel.” Even those of us who consider ourselves environmentalists often balk; we’re paying hundreds of dollars to stay in their hotel, and, darn it, we really want a clean towel.
But researchers Dan and Chip Heath from Stanford University revealed a way to convince people to reuse their towels, as documented in their excellent book, titled Switch. In an experiment, a hotel changed the messaging on its bathroom signs to read, “The majority of guests at the hotel reuse their towels at least once during their stay.” There was absolutely no mention of protecting the environment to conserve water. No visuals of a green earth we want to protect.
It worked. Towel reuse increased by 26 percent. In Switch, the Heath brothers call this an example of “contagious behavior.” The term is interesting, but what’s actually going on is broader than a behavior catching on in some viral way. The real changes seem to occur when people simply want to follow the pack — provided it’s a pack they feel some affinity for. We don’t want to be shut out or ostracized. We want that good feeling that happens when we belong to a tribe that’s bigger than just us. In some ways it’s not that different from buying into a brand. We might choose to wear Levi’s jeans, for example, if we identify with fashionable rock stars, or just people we work with that we like and admire.
As marketers of greener products or practices, the implications for all this are huge.
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Let’s say the goal is to get everyone in your town to embrace curbside recycling. For people who are new to recycling, it can be a total pain: rinsing out jars and cans folding up cardboard and newspapers, schlepping it out to curb. The letter that goes out to the town’s citizens can include messaging that reads, “75 percent of towns in our county have curbside recycling.”
If you’re trying to sell more solar power to a community, you’ll certainly include the obvious messaging about money savings and affordability. But it will pay to do an analysis, maybe right down to the neighborhood level, that shows how many people currently have solar in that one area. People really want to be part of their community and follow the cultural norms. So show that solar energy has become a cultural norm. This is a lot easier in places like California that already have a lot of solar, but as solar becomes more popular around the country there is a Malcolm Gladwellian tipping point that will occur, which will open the door for cultural-norm based messaging.
In cases where a tipping point is not apparent (as in numbers of families who have adopted a particular practice or technology), research can help uncover nuggets of insight that can help flip our internal switches to change behavior. The hotel towel story is just one example of this; a majority of guests did, in fact, reuse their towels at least once, but nobody had ever really measured this before or reported it.
But there will also be cases where there is no data that in a clear and obvious way supports the idea that the majority of people like you are using a particular technology or practice. Take smart meters: Utilities have been having an awful time trying to get smart people to install smart meters. Some communities in the Pacific Northwest actually blocked their roads so the utility trucks couldn’t get into their neighborhoods. Concerns ranged from potential health impacts of IF transmissions to data security — and this was before we found out that the NSA was tapping everything but the kitchen sink (what if the NSA could actually tap your kitchen sink because its garbage disposal had a wireless transmitter that told the utility how much power it was using at different times of day? Sheesh).
In cases like this, the utility’s messaging would need to speak of energy efficiency and savings in a broader sense instead of focusing specifically on adoption of smart meters. For example, maybe the majority of households in a given county have taken steps in recent years to better insulate their homes and build cost savings with thermostats. So the headline on the mailer to households to introduce smart meters leads with “Most families in [insert town here] have increased their energy savings with greater efficiency — new smart meters are another way to be part of what our community is all about.” That’s a bit long-winded, but you get the gist.
Lastly, I want to point out that the majority of people who read my blog posts tweet about them (Disclaimer: I made this up).
This post first appeared on Media Post on November 27, 2013.