Blaze the green trail

Such is the complexity of green issues that consumers are seeking leadership and guidance from brands, and they increasingly expect this to be achieved through action – such as M&S’s Plan A

Climate change has been billed as the biggest, most urgent challenge facing the world this century; it also presents each individual consumer with a number of complex choices.

Research by Starcom MediaVest Group reveals the latest insights on the dynamics of attitudinal change, explains why brands who lead consumer behaviour will win their support and loyalty, and identifies the moments at which people are most receptive to green and ethical messaging.

All consumers are on a green adoption curve, albeit travelling at different speeds. Four types of consumer were identified according to what they do for the environment rather than how they think: the Passionates, the Dutifuls, Followers and the Uninvolved.

Passionates, comprise 10% of the population and are highly motivated – the only group of people who regularly campaign, blog and boycott. They are often uncompromising in their attitudes and can be intolerant of those with less passionate views.

Dutifuls make up 24% of adults; they are enthusiastic without being political; they aspire to being greener and more ethical, often seeing it as a signifier of social status.

Followers are the majority of the population at 41%. They tend to be more green than ethical and they feel that they ought to get more involved but are often not sure how to. They are happier to defer to sources of authority rather than actively seek information and are particularly in need of leadership from brands.

The Uninvolved, 25% of the population, are more apathetic than actively anti-green, but have nevertheless formed a powerful set of barriers to adoption.

Demographically, attitudinally and in terms of media usage and participation, these consumer groups can significantly differ. For example, 28% of Passionates read blogs or take part in discussion forums compared to 9% of Dutifuls. This limits communication between groups, but more importantly cultural factors can restrict the trickledown of influence.

Usually we see word of mouth as more important than media as an influencer of behaviour, but with green or ethical issues the opposite is often true. Only one in six Followers – the majority of the “involved” population – have regular conversations, and over two-thirds say the media is more influential than their friends.

The crucial point is talking about being more green or ethical is difficult for people. There can be a feeling of being overwhelmed by the gravity and complexity of the issues, and advocates are often dismissed as being too serious or worthy. The opinions of the passionate and even the advice of friends tends to spark resentment as much as a desire to change.

This means that brand communication should be weighted toward pinpointing a target audience, rather than trying to influence the influencers. An influential green and ethical opinion leader within each social group just doesn’t exist.

The exaggerated influence of media on all segments can present problems for brands. People are willing to defer to expert opinion filtered through the media, which is seen as more of a neutral ally. Where the media challenges brands (as with the recent Channel 4’s food fight programming), brands must be prepared to take on the recommended challenges. Simultaneously, building positive word of mouth can help brands to harness their agenda and tackle negative media coverage.

To earn and protect consumer trust it is important that brands lead by example in affecting their customers’ behaviour change. Brands are expected to take responsibility – 67% of respondents expect brands to take responsibility for promoting green and ethical purchasing, over and above government action. Only a third of respondents expect brands to be 100% green and ethical, but increasingly brands are being held responsible for making choices on behalf of their customers. Two brand initiatives that have done this – Sainsbury’s decision to sell only fairtrade bananas and M&S’s Plan A campaign – were cited in the study.

Taking a lead means particular care is required when communicating green and ethical credentials. Irrespective of content or tone, consumers believe that serious issues underpin green or ethical communication, and therefore, brands should avoid communicating in media and environments where consumers expect to enjoy their leisure time. Instead brands should use media where consumers expect stimulation or are seeking information.

Brands should take a lead and contribute to solutions on green issues, share a vision and bring consumers on the journey towards it, strike partnerships and work with other bodies for mutual benefit, and finally arm consumers, in order to help them justify decisions to themselves.

Not only that, but brands should always answer the “what’s in it for me?” question from consumers – brands need to show how their customers are also benefiting. The study also shows that they should not expect to borrow values from ethical media – that right must be earned in the eyes of consumers. Neither should they fake ethical grassroots as it is easy for customers to spot manufactured buzz, and messages work better in environments where people are in an active frame of mind.







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