Stakeholder Trends and Insights
What Kind of Change Maker Are You?

These are heady times for those working at the intersections of business, branding and sustainability. In recent years, we've seen an unprecedented confluence of behavioral sciences, business acumen, branding strategy and green technologies, giving rise to entirely new disciplines, roles, practices and industries. This is evidenced in the growth of Sustainable Brands itself, as an internationally vibrant hub dedicated to skillful integration of our deepest-held values, commitments and ethos in a competitive and demanding business environment.

With this escalation of thought leadership, best practices and innovations, there has been another kind of revolution taking place. It's not flashy, but quiet, and it informs and drives every aspect of our work, our strategic considerations and how we implement in the world.

This quiet movement concerns the ways we think about change. How we think about change — what motivates, drives, incites, inspires, moves and otherwise mobilizes people — essentially dictates what market research we value and invest in, the kinds of data we then generate, what we do with it and how it flows into our ability to measure ROI.

What we've noticed over the past several years working with clients is that how we think about change tends to fall into four general areas. People come to us and want to design effective behavior change approaches and campaigns, but their primarily lens is usually determined by a particular trend or approach, such as the use of incentives, social norming, or sparking innovation through challenges and competitions. What we usually do not realize is — first, that this landscape is in fact not singular but made up of very specific orientations and assumptions — and second, how our own "change agent theory" either supports or limits our capacities as change makers and effective practitioners. This applies as much to how we promote sustainability in our organization as to how we design the most ambitious engagement strategies. Our lens tends to blind us to the full spectrum of tools available.

There are four main lenses emerging into which people working in sustainability tend to fall — there are overlaps, but people tend to align with one of these. See if you may recognize yourself or your organization in one of these areas:

As a Behaviorist, your primary focus is on behavioral change, which often means insights from behavioral economics. This often means the way we think about changing people's behaviors is through identifying the key "levers, drivers, motivators and triggers" to "shift, nudge or influence" the behaviors we need to see for meeting the planet's acute ecological challenges. Popular expressions of behavioral change tend to focus on use of incentives, barriers, and "overcoming barriers" by focusing on behavioral economics, such as focusing on personal gain, cost-benefit analysis, and short-term benefits. There is also a concern with identifying "trigger events" to leverage (i.e. when the Olympics came to London, people had to get around differently, otherwise known as a "burning platform"). We call this the Behaviorist lens, as the focus is mainly on what tools are best for the job and finding the most expedient, often short-term tools for quickly shifting behavior.

The Sociologist

Passionate about framing specific values and cultural memes for mobilizing change? The Sociologist tends to focus on how to leverage cultural values, beliefs and identities — staying attuned to how cultural values are shifting and figuring out how to tap into those currents. Change is viewed more at the macro-level. Those with a Culture lens are most passionate about finding the right frames, memes and messaging; the focus is on how to leverage shifts on the more macro-scale, at the level of cultural values. Popular examples include how George Lakoff's work has been used for framing strategies, what kinds of values we want to support and encourage, and much of the work in branding that focuses on tapping specific frames, such as tapping into aspirational messaging or avoiding overly environmental jargon. We call this the Sociologist, as the focus tends to be on viewing change as a cultural endeavor, involving persuasion and good old-fashioned messaging theory.

The Guru

Third, in this burgeoning area of sustainability and branding is a rising interest in the emotional, experiential aspects of sustainability. The emphasis here is on how we can support and speak to people's direct emotional connection with these issues and topics. We are seeing this more as the topic of climate denial becomes more popularized, as well as the move towards more conversational styles of engaging people. This is a more interactive, participatory mode, where our stakeholders and audiences are viewed as participants and collaborators. We refer to this lens as the Guru, as the focus is on connecting with our hearts as well as our minds and recognizing that without a direct connection to the context of sustainable practices, people will fail to connect or make the necessary connections. This lens has strong affinity with those deeply influenced by mindfulness orientations, and it has recognition of the highly emotional, affective and irrational nature of what drives our behaviors and practices.

The Designer

Decades ago, Paul Hawken declared that sustainability is fundamentally a design problem. The fourth approach to change tends to focus on this dimension: how we can design solutions through our technological, industrial and commercial innovations. We playfully call this The Designer because this captures the view that fundamentally we need to design better solutions for people to live in accordance with creating a more sustainable world. From this point of view, the motto tends to be "design a better world" and draws from design sciences for addressing our most challenging problems. This is where we find those most passionate about the latest technological advances, from waste management to packaging technologies to the need for systemic, infrastructural changes. This in some ways is at the farthest end of the spectrum from the first type, where the focus tends to be more on individual behavioral changes. People most aligned with this lens are usually passionate about solutions and using more collaborative, participatory tools for innovations.

Where do you find yourself in this spectrum? Perhaps a combination of a Behaviorist, with some Sociologist in the mix? Are you a closet Guru but only come out as a Designer focused on solutions?

Where we tend to fall on this map matters greatly. Our lens shapes our ideas, strategies and capacities to imagine new and different innovations.

We have found that in fact we need all of the lenses.

Each one on their own contains specific views of the world and is limited on its own. The truth is that real change — at the level required for shifting how we exist sustainably on our planet — involves all of these, in specific combinations. Our skill as branding professionals will depend on our capacities to recognize what combinations are best suited for the job at hand — that is, to practice being as integrative as possible. Each has specific insights, expertise and tools best suited for particular jobs. However, more often than not, we do not collaborate and partner across this map. We also tend to harbor biases towards the others.

So, we tend to stay in our area and presume that is the entire landscape. What this means is limited, stunted strategies, research methodologies and frameworks, which may be extremely effective in some respects, but woefully lacking in others. While we often talk about collaboration, how often do we actively collaborate across these areas of expertise? (Note: Implementation of real integration does require us to work across these areas of expertise and invite to the table those who bring specific skill sets lacking in our teams.)

So, next time you find yourself in a meeting or session focusing on behavior change and sustainability, take a moment and consider where you are on the Change Maker Map. Who else is in the mix? And see how you can create the most effective teams possible for your work — by collaborating across all four main lenses, learning and seeing where the pieces fit together.


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