Taking a consumer-centred approach through using social marketing to communicate sustainability helps you understand people and their behaviour
If you are looking to achieve sustainable behaviour change by adopting a truly people-centred approach, then social marketing might be the tool for you.
Do you understand the reasons why people behave in certain ways? If you don’t, then achieving sustainable behaviour change may not be possible. Simply trying to tell people to change, or giving them information and expecting them to act on it, may not work if you forget to consider the benefits people derive from certain behaviours. But by taking a truly consumer-centred approach, social marketing enables you to understand people and their behaviour.
Social marketing has long been confused with advertising and social media. But social marketing is much more than just promotion; it is a discipline, which draws on psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology in an attempt to fully understand people. Once this understanding has been gained, it develops products, services and messages which provide people with an exchange they will value. This concept of exchange is really important if you want to achieve sustainable behaviour change.
This is because we do not always behave in our best interest. In recent years a range of programmes, funded by the public sector, have tried to “educate” the consumer around a number of important health and environmental issues, hoping to bring about behaviour change.
An example of one of these campaigns is the Department of Health’s five-a-day initiative. The UK government, in line with World Health Organisation guidance, recommends an intake of at least five portions of fruit or vegetables per person per day. Hazel Blears, who was minister for public health in 2003 when the campaign was launched, said: “The evidence shows that eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day could help prevent up to 20% of deaths from our nation’s biggest killers such as heart disease and some cancers.”
Despite the investment in the five-a-day message, the campaign has failed to have a positive impact on people’s actual behaviour. Figures from the fresh produce organisation Freshfel Europe show that UK consumers ate 1% more fruit in 2008 compared with the previous five-year average, but vegetable consumption fell by 11%.
So, what was the actual exchange being offered? If you want to achieve sustainable behaviour change, success lies in understanding your consumer and then using this understanding to offer them an exchange they will value. The exchange offered by the five-a-day campaign focused mainly on long-term benefits, as opposed to both short- and long-term benefits, which are more valued by the target audience.
Research conducted by the National Social Marketing Centre in 2007 highlights this point. Conducted in the West Midlands with consumers from lower socio-economic groups (C-E), it found that people do not regard the long-term health exchange offered by five-a-day as valuable – if you smoke, drink a little too much and don’t exercise as much as you should do, will eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day really make a difference?
Contrast this with a social marketing programme that was launched in the US at around the same time as five-a-day. Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in America. A rapidly growing population in the surrounding areas had contributed to increased pollution of the bay, often in the form of agricultural chemicals from sewage and lawn fertiliser which ran off into the bay and upset the local marine ecosystem.
While regulation had moved local industry to reduce their pollution levels, years of eco-based campaigning had failed to achieve any sustainable behaviour change from the residents of the bay and the wider area. A social marketing approach was taken to find a way to motivate them into action. It was decided that a suitable exchange needed to be found in order to get around their scepticism and inertia.
The blue crab, a local seafood favourite, was found to be under threat from the pollution, and this became the focus of the exchange proposition. With the crustacean facing extermination as its habitat was polluted, locals were asked to change their behaviour, and were encouraged to view this as a culinary rather than environmental issue. The idea was to persuade them to fertilise their lawns in the autumn instead of spring, when heavy rains washed the resulting chemicals into the bay. A humorous, “Save the crabs, then eat ’em!” campaign ran in the media alongside the guidance of local groups into how people could go about looking after their lawns in a more effective way. After the intervention, research showed increased awareness of lawn-care behaviours that contribute to bay pollution, and a corresponding decrease in intent to fertilise in the spring.
This is a great example of how social marketing was able to identify an exchange that changed the behaviour of people jaded by decades of message-based appeals.
Whether consciously or not, people analyse costs and benefits at some level before they decide to act. By taking a social marketing approach and developing an exchange, you can ensure that the benefits offered are ones your audience value.
By Rowena Merritt, Aiden Truss & Toby Hopwood for the Guardian Professional Network