Behavior Change
The Answer to Effective Sustainability Marketing? Simple ... But Not Easy

While world leaders were converging in New York last week to debate climate change, I crisscrossed the country to attend three different conferences (thereby adding more carbon to the aforementioned UN debate, I realize). Specifically, I attended the EEBA conference, the Utility Efficiency Exchange and Sustainable Brands' New Metrics '14. At all of these events, I met folks and heard presentations from the private sector’s front lines of energy and environment — all working to create programs and products that will, ultimately, lower our collective environmental footprint.

My role, as usual, was to give the American consumer perspective and answer the question, “How do we market this energy-conserving and/or more sustainable product/program/home to people most effectively?”

The answer is simple, but not easy: Do it for them.

Perhaps depressingly, all of our Pulse studies this year point to that inescapable message: Americans want corporations, organizations and even governments to make sustainability ordinary and energy efficiency The Way We Do Things Around Here. They want you to simply build all new homes so that they’re more comfortable and efficient (and beautiful and better quality), fill those homes with smart devices that make energy-efficiency automatic, manufacture products in a way that’s not in any way harmful to people or the planet and just generally be the good guys.

What constitutes The Good Life in the eyes of consumers?

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And they don’t really want to pay more for it.

Yes, I heard presentations (and gave examples from Shelton Group’s latest work with clients) that laid out successes in getting Americans to recall the right messages, adopt new behaviors and engage with better products and programs. But it all still feels like baby steps … like we’re still plucking from the low-hanging fruit and not creating wholesale culture change. Maybe that’s enough — maybe a lot of people making baby steps actually adds up to wholesale change. But I’m afraid not.

We can debate the merits of Leonardo DiCaprio speaking at the UN Climate Summit later … but I think his sentiment is right — that we can keep encouraging individual actions (like changing light bulbs or buying hybrid cars), but we won’t get to the kind of wholesale change that’s likely needed if industries and governments don’t act boldly.

It’s always obvious at Sustainable Brands events that there are many companies making those kinds of bold moves (and some companies that are actually only dipping their toes in the water). And for folks of a politically conservative nature, that may be enough … let the free market handle it. But so much of what needs to change — like building codes, utility revenue models, infrastructure issues — does require governmental/legislative involvement. There’s just no escaping that.

So … my message after a week of conferences, a little too much news and plenty of time with our latest Energy Pulse report is this: We all need to do whatever it takes to do the right things and be the good guys, and make sustainability and energy efficiency the default. If you’re waiting for the market to demand it (and pay more for it), it might never happen. But when we make this whole thing easier for Americans, they will reward us with their loyalty.

This post first appeared on the Shelton Group blog on October 1, 2014.

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