Content Marketing

Why Consumers Struggle to Connect with “Green” Brands. Could the solution be Behavioural Economics?

Table of contents:

Between climate change, natural disasters and conflict zones… it can feel like there’s more bad stories in the world than good. For “green” brands — those who advocate sustainable or ethical practices — the challenge is this: how to connect with the consumers who struggle to connect with them.

Cause marketing is of critical importance in 2019.


Because, let’s face it — the world needs our help! Between climate change, natural disasters and conflict zones… it can feel like there’s more bad stories in the world than good.

And this is part of the reason consumers are apathetic when it comes to “green” marketing communication. It’s a struggle to focus when they are so many movements and causes to get behind.

With so many brands campaigning for change, the easiest thing for people to do is rest on their laurels, and continue as they are.

Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. There is a group of super engaged, values-driven consumers out there. But if we are to create real, lasting change for good in the world, we can’t do it with a niche backing alone.

For “green” brands — those who advocate sustainable or ethical practices — the challenge is this: how to connect with the consumers who struggle to connect with them.

Good news! The audience is there…

People are increasingly engaged — or at least interested — in what they can do to benefit the world around them.

If we turn to Google Trends, and have a look at the upward swing of a search such as “sustainable brands”, it paints a pretty optimistic picture.

On the whole, Millennials and Generation Z are driving this new interest, often named as the most ethically and environmentally aware generations. These two consumer groups represent a staggering 28.7 million potential buyers in the UK alone!

However, look a little closer, and a behaviour-intention gap becomes apparent; even this audience doesn’t buy sustainable and ethical products as much as they claim to.

I saw it all the time, all over the world, in my previous life as a market researcher. Mums in Sao Paulo who knew the city’s reservoir was drying up, and still did the laundry each and every day, to send their kids to school in bright, white uniform. And coffee drinkers in the US and Europe who would have liked to buy beans with a Fairtrade logo, but found promotional offers on standard household brands too appealing to pass up.

Whilst it seems many people would like to support “green” business, they don’t always.

So, why would they say one thing, and then do another?

Because they are human. Just like you and me, and everyone at the helm of ethical and sustainable brands the world round, for whom this disconnect can be very frustrating. If you’re involved in the growth of a nonprofit, social enterprise or “green” commercial brand, you must remember: even though you’re immersed all the good you’re doing — not everyone is as close to the cause as you are.

Humans are irrational, and don’t always (or ever, really) do “the right thing” in a rational sense.

Overcoming irrationality isn’t easy; we are all creatures of habit. To change the brands we buy, and our everyday behaviour, takes time and energy. We all prefer to remain, happily, in a System 1 way of thinking; relying on predisposition.

That being said, there are behavioural nudges which can help jolt us out of our status quo.

And that’s exactly what I think “green” brands need to do, if they want to connect with — and inspired change from — a mass market audience.

Effective “green” marketing uses Behavioural Economics

In another of Scribly’s articles, we discussed how crucial copywriting is for ethical business — if you’re in search of writing technique tips and tricks, then you should take a look.

But I’d like to take you on a slightly loftier journey, exploring how Behavioural Economics can marry up with quality storytelling to make “green” marketing messaging compelling to everyone.

Sound exciting?

Okay, time to get stuck in.

The B.E. theories I believe to be of utmost value to “green” brands are:

  • Present focus bias
  • Reward substitution
  • The identifiable victim effect

Don’t worry if you’ve never even heard of these concepts before, we’ll have you swotted up and eager to learn more before this article is through.

For now, let’s examine each of these theories in practice…

“People say that any plastic I don’t recycle ends up in the ocean… but, I’ve never seen it for myself.”

Time to get real: how many of us have started with the best of intentions on a diet… only to crumble mere hours later at the sight of a biscuit or slice of cake.

Here, your present focus bias — a preference for immediate rewards over ones we must wait for — overwhelms your better judgement.

You remember how delicious cake tastes, and you want it. In that moment, the instant reward of something tasty is more motivating than your long-term goal to eat healthier.

And this is also always at play when consumers consider a “green” brand.

Fortunately for most of us, the negative impacts of climate change, war, famine or poverty aren’t happening on our doorsteps. Yes, we may hear about them on TV and see them in our social media feeds, but there’s a distance between us and them. We rarely see them with our own eyes.

If you’re feeling too lazy to clean out a hummus pot, and chuck it in the main trash instead of the recycling, what happens? To you: not a lot, at all. Where does that pot end up? Chances are it doesn’t end up in a landfill right behind your house.

As a result, the issue caused by your stray plastic pot doesn’t affect you in the long run. Once it’s left your hands, it’s not your problem anymore.

The immediate reward: saving yourself a few seconds of extra cleaning. The reward we wait for: plastic-free oceans.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all opted for this particular immediate reward, at least once.

So, what does this mean for “green” brands?

If your cause is based on the other side of the world, you need to use storytelling to bring it into your audience’s home. What can you do, to make your mission relevant and motivating in their present moment?

I think that innocent is super at this. In fact, I was enjoying one of their smoothies just the other day when I spotted this witty, and highly motivating, bit of copy:

“You’re going to recycle this bottle. Of course you are. You’re the kind of person who’d send a birthday card to their neighbour’s second cousin (twice removed). You’re the kind of person everyone wants to grow up to be like. We won’t use the word hero. That might embarrass someone like you. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t thinking it. Don’t ever change.”

And what did I do? I recycled it, of course. I had no choice! innocent made the act of cleaning out and recycling their bottle so rewarding to me. That’s storytelling at its finest.

True, innocent’s chat-vertising approach doesn’t work in every organisation’s tone of voice.

So, what would this look like for your brand?

“I’d like to buy Fairtrade, but it’s too expensive.”

Cost is a massive deciding factor for consumers.

When it comes to trading up to “green” brands in your standard supermarket shop, shoppers certainly feel the pinch of an extra 50-70p for a Fairtrade or other certified product.

And this links to the present focus bias. Knowing that in a far-flung country, a plantation of tea workers may be getting a better working deal because of your action, isn’t always motivating enough to overcome the price difference.

In fact, it can sometimes feel more like a compromise to buy “green”, rather than a reward.

Enter: the reward substitution.

Using this behavioural nudge, a “green” brand can offer an alternative recompense for choosing their product.

In the background, the ethical and sustainable benefit remains. But, in order to close the sale, you build in a feature that’s more directly paying back to your audience.

Method does this so very well.

I’m not sure you’d ever find a method bottle hidden away in someone’s bathroom cupboard. If they buy method, then they would like you to see it.

And that’s because the brand invests so heavily in its brand and communication.

Not only is the packaging best in class, but they make buying natural — and therefore environmentally friendly — cleaning products seem like the most envy-inducing choice you could make.

Who cares how much it costs! I wanna be in the method gang, don’t you?

“There are just so many people who need our help… I don’t know where to begin.”

Environmental and social issues are far too vast, and far reaching, for any of us to tackle on our own.

Indeed, even brands built around a team of highly skilled and dedicated activists, need the support of governments and the rest of the population to succeed.

And the enormity of the mission is often demotivating for consumers to consider. We all end up thinking, “What on earth could I possibly do to help?”.

And so here’s my last, and probably favourite, B.E. theory: the identifiable victim effect.

Or, in the case of “green” brands, I prefer: the identifiable benefactor effect.

This involves boiling an inconceivably big idea down, into one single story.

Charities use this technique frequently, with “sponsor a child” campaigns and the like. They understand — and bank on — the fact that heavy statistics (e.g. “Around the world, 569 millionchildren and young people live on less than a £1 a day”) can leave an audience cold. Whereas a narrative which focuses in one just one of these children, results in greater lead generation.

In the world of for profit brands, Toms utilises this nudge very well.

Calling themselves The One For One Company makes involvement seem so simple to potential buyers; buy one pair of Toms, help one person in need.

Buy another pair of Toms, help another person. Buy a third pair of Toms, and so on…

It doesn’t ask a lot, and as a result, sells extraordinarily well.

Blake Mycoskie, Founder and CEO of Toms, actually credits the brand’s success to simplicity and storytelling.

So, whilst it’s tempting to promote all the good work you’re doing, and the many lives you’re touching with your “green” brand, to motivate — and truly connect with — a wider audience, simplicity is key.

Today, consumer struggle to connect with “green” brands. But we can change that.

You clicked on this article because you wanted to learn more about consumers’ relationships with “green” brands.

Perhaps you write copy for an ethical clothing business, or you’re a marketeer tasked with selling palm oil free chocolate. You may just be a frustrated friend, who can’t comprehend why your inner circle doesn’t share the same passion you do for sustainable shopping.

Whatever position you’re coming from, the way you tell your story can make all the difference.

Incorporate the above behavioural nudges in your narrative, and override the biases and heuristics currently separating you from a wider audience.

With each new customer, and each new advocate, we’re one step closer to the positive change we’re all working for.

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