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Behavior Change
Unilever Study Reveals Influence of Influencers in Sustainable Behavior Change

Dove, Hellmann’s and a team of behavioral scientists examined how brands can leverage and maximize the power of social media influencers to positively impact consumer behavior.

Unilever, alongside a cohort of sustainability influencers and behavioral scientists, recently revealed the results of a first-of-its-kind examination of the role of influencer content in impacting sustainable behaviors and purchasing decisions.

The experiment was created in partnership with the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) — the world’s first government institution dedicated to applying behavior science. To put activist influencer social media content to the test, BIT built a simulated social platform that showed people various styles of content, and measured the resulting behavior change of 6,000 UK, US and Canadian consumers.

The results showed that influencers have the single biggest impact on people’s sustainable lifestyle choices today. True for 78 percent of people, it is far ahead of TV documentaries (48 percent), news articles (37 percent) and even government campaigns (just 20 percent). In fact, 83 percent agree that TikTok and Instagram are helpful places to seek out advice on how to reduce waste and be more sustainable at home, validating the importance of social media as a valuable tool in helping to make sustainable living commonplace. This was even higher (86 percent) for younger participants (18-34), highlighting the greater importance that future generations are placing on living sustainably.

“Sustainability is integrated into everything we do at Unilever, and much of our sustainability actions are told by our brands and the content creators we choose to partner with,” said Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital & Commercial Officer. “What we hear from consumers is that living sustainably is a constant, overwhelming effort; and many feel ‘my act alone won’t count, anyway.’ With a team of experts across marketing, sustainability, communications and digital, our ambition is to continue to learn and improve the sustainability content produced by our brands and support the creators we work with. Together, we are learning what is ‘all likes and no action’ versus content that can help make sustainable choices simple and preferred.”

The study

For the experiment, Unilever and BIT worked with 10 creators from the UK, the USA, and Canada, including @maxlamanna, @going.zero.waste, and @andyseastcoastkitchen. Dove and Hellmann’s — two of Unilever’s largest brands — commissioned 30 pieces of content aimed at nudging people to waste less food and less plastic — two of the consumer behaviors with the greatest potential to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint.

6,000 participants in the UK, US, and Canada (aligned with the demographics of TikTok and Instagram users) were shown the content and asked a series of questions to understand whether it had affected their intentions to change their behavior. Two weeks later, 2,500 reported back on whether it had affected their actual behaviors.

The content tested was created to be either:

  • Pragmatic — characterized by an emphasis on the scale of the problem behavior, expansive and far-away consequences, and a heavy use of data and statistics; or

  • Optimistic — characterized by practical demonstrations of how to live sustainably; emphasis on the benefits to the individual; and a surprising, often humorous tone.

The results revealed that both styles of content are effective in nudging people to adopt sustainable behaviors. In fact, 75 percent of respondents said that the content made them more likely to adopt sustainable behaviors — including saving and reusing plastic, buying refillable products, and freezing and reusing leftovers. When measuring actual behavior change, the study shows that people value both facts and practical advice. Of those who watched ‘pragmatic’ content, 69 percent went on to try something new to reduce their plastic or food waste as a result, with 61 percent of those who watch ‘optimistic’ content reporting action.

Branded content was viewed as just as engaging, authentic and informative as the unbranded content — with participants supportive of social media creators making sponsored content on sustainability-related topics. Eight in 10 (77 percent) support creators encouraging their audience to behave in an environmentally friendly way and seven in ten (72 percent) support them selling more sustainable products or services. Seven in ten (76 percent) were encouraged to act after watching Dove’s plastics-reuse content and 8 in 10 (82 percent) after watching Hellmann’s content on food-waste reduction.

David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioral Insights Team, said: “This study is a world-first of its kind and the largest online, controlled trial to test the effect of different styles of social media content. The behavior change potential of social media is clear and the results show that there’s huge opportunity — providing fertile ground for further exploration in this space.”

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