Stakeholder Trends and Insights
The 'Awareness' Trap:
Why Most Companies Are Failing to Change Consumer Behaviour

Many sustainability-driven businesses aren’t providing consumers with the environments in which to meet their sustainability aspirations — that’s according to Sille Krukow, founder of Krukow Behavioural Consulting. Krukow was speaking during an interview at the SB’16 Copenhagen preview event in Denmark earlier this month, where she took delegates on a captivating journey into the world of Behavioural Economics.

Sille Krukow

“However, many people would also agree that their behaviour doesn’t always follow those ambitions,” she continued, “and I think a key factor in that is the role brands play in helping us to meet those goals.”

Krukow recounted that when companies want to reach out to consumers and help them to live more sustainable lives in line with their aspirations, the traditional way of measuring success is through ‘awareness’. “We ask ourselves ‘how many people saw our ‘green’ ad campaign?’ ‘How many hits did we get? How many people liked our message?’ Motivation and imparting knowledge are seen as the end of the road, as ‘victory’.”

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“Brands assume consumers are going to take that knowledge and act upon it, but they don’t because they’re busy doing ten thousand other things that are more important,” she reflected.

“Brands have this image of consumers as ‘super-beings.’ They tend to forget that that we have biological limitations, that we struggle to focus on more than a few things at a time, that most of the decisions we make are made automatically.

“If these businesses say they are trying to help consumers be more sustainable purely through raising awareness, in a way that’s just another form of greenwashing,” she asserted.

This is where Behavioural Economics can help businesses, Krukow explained. It deals with Choice Architecture (the way choices are presented to consumers) and examines the environments in which decisions are made.

“In supermarkets, for example, decision-making happens on the shop floor,” she said, “and the choice architecture there is often exclusively geared towards maximising revenue. Products that offer the greatest profit get the hotspots, the places where people are most likely to make a purchase.”

“That strategy neglects all the company’s other objectives,” she observed. “Helping people live more sustainable lives becomes a ‘fluffy ambition’ because they’re still guiding people towards traditional choices.”

Behavioural economics explores opportunities to change that choice architecture, and bring it more in line with brands’ wider sustainability goals, Krukow remarked.

“That involves making it easier for consumers to identify and choose sustainable options. It can involve changing store layouts, or introducing ‘nudges’ such as an associated sound, colour or smell. A common misconception is that nudging consumers involves taking away choices — it doesn’t. It means introducing incentives that create a positive change in behaviour.”

There are a huge range of nudges companies can employ, Krukow explained. The role of a behavioural consultant is to help brands choose the most appropriate solutions: “That means identifying consumers’ underlying goals, then using techniques such as cost/benefit analysis to determine which nudges will bring about the biggest corresponding change at the least expense.”

A question still lingers, however: Why would businesses spend money guiding consumers away from behaviours that bring in the greatest revenue?

“Consumers increasingly aspire to being greener, to being healthier, to being more responsible, and it is essential that brands help them meet these goals,” Krukow warned. “If consumers walk into a supermarket with sustainability or wellbeing aspirations and routinely come out with products that go against these values, they’re going to start feeling a little bit of guilt, a growing sense of dissatisfaction. In the long term that’s not an enduring brand relationship.”

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