most recent addition to the white paper
table of contents:
just how different is the approach of 21st century communicators?
is it unethical to communicate by means of emotions?
is there any evidence to gauge the success or failure of sustainability communications?
how to communicate without appearing to be doing so?
is there a formula to apply these techniques to an intangible concept?
what is not working
By declaring that sustainability communications are failing, I am not exposing myself too much; I am in good company, while still being a long way from unanimity. Just consider the army of communication consultants who keep producing reams of text to help corporations convert their sustainability credentials into a competitive market advantage. By and large, these campaigns suffer from the issues that I have exposed in the previous chapters:
why the reticence?
nothing to brag about
the contrarian brain
In summary, my argument is that governments, NGOs and even companies continue to communicate about sustainability using methods that have been rendered obsolete by three concurrent factors in the fifty years since the very word ’sustainability’ shot to prominence:
The scientific community’s growing data on complex interconnected issues, rapidly raising the bar for what can be considered a helpful opinion
An explosion in the amount of media signals we are exposed to, rapidly reducing the scope for conveying complex information to the general public
The progress made in the field of neuro-science, which gives us a better understanding of how the human brain processes information
The third of these factors allows us to understand just how much the first two ones combine to exacerbate the communication challenge.
the answer is staring us in the face
What is interesting, and frustrating at the same time, is that there are companies that have kept abreast of these developments, revolutionising the way they promote their products or services to consumers. The methods are obvious for all to see. Let’s call them ‘The 21st century communicators’. By and large, their communications build on these simple rules:
accept that the window into the modern consumer’s mind is extremely narrow
accept that consumers have little time or desire to evaluate and compare products
make the product synonymous with a brand and a lifestyle
promote brand/lifestyle as aspirational values
Yet nobody seems to have found the way of applying these rules to promote intangible concepts, such as sustainability. The purpose of my paper is first of all to explain what may be preventing them, and secondly to propose a formula to overcome the issues by re-arranging some important parameters.
Today, communication consultants are advising governments, NGOs and companies to communicate sustainability with methods that seem to rely on the following assumptions:
that you can capture consumers' attention with narratives about a company's internal practices.
that consumers have the time and curiosity to take on board vast amounts of information about supply chain, production cycles and the recyclability of products.
that consumers are able to compare the claims from competing companies.
that consumers know which brands emanate from which company
that consumers are rational agents who will consciously favour products and services from the companies that have explained their sustainability credentials most persuasively.
These assumptions go against all we know today about the way we process information. I am not suggesting that consultants are misleading their clients about the enormity of the task, nor that they are themselves in denial. So why do they still insist on selling them advice that is predicated on these assumptions?
morality against efficiency
Because the issue of sustainability has such far-reaching implications for the whole of humanity, we easily allow ourselves to become over-zealously PC when dealing with the issue. Were you selling toiletries or carbonated drinks, you would not be similarly restrained.
Firstly, it leads to an unspoken moral rule: to address humans as rational agents who will act upon a coherent message. The fact that tribes of more conscious consumers are forming in various parts of the world is hastily interpreted as confirmation of this. In the face of slow progress and obvious obstacles, communicators therefore tend to pile on with ever escalating communication. Unfortunately there is absolutely such a thing as too much information, especially when communicating to large audiences. When there is an excess of information, this is not only inefficient, it can actually be detrimental to the objective.
Secondly, communicators and their clients are justifiably fearful, if not plain terrorised, by the risk of backlash, in this case the risk of being perceived to engage in “greenwash”. Greenwash comes under several guises, and the boundaries can be dangerously fuzzy. Companies that deliberately mislead deserve everything that comes their way, of course. The problem is that there are insidious risks even for companies that could legitimately claim to be leading the march towards sustainability. There is a profound anxiety regarding the concept of appealing to emotions rather than intellect. The mantra remains: communicate with openness and transparency, explain, educate, persuade, justify, report, substantiate and demonstrate.
The implication is that it would be unethical to use techniques that the commercial world uses to sell to consumers. This has led to a generalized tendency to address consumers as if they were educated and objective market analysts.
I would argue there is a good case for turning the moral question on its head: if the issue has far-reaching implications for the whole of humanity, how can it be morally justifiable to penalise the cause by using communication methods that are proven to be inefficient or even detrimental?
success or failure?
Is that too harsh? Is there any empirical evidence about the success or failure of sustainability communications?
It would have to be the indices that measure the discrepancy between sustainability performance (objectively measured) and sustainability perception (consumers' subjective impression). The phenomenon of sustainability communications is now fifty years old, more than enough not only to expect measurable results, but also for the issue to have become accepted as a hygiene-factor, requiring no further advocacy. It should therefore be possible to assess the success of sustainability communications on the basis of consumers' ability to identify ‘good’ brands from ‘bad’ ones. If that ability is high, one would have to conclude that sustainability communications have been a success: consumers would favour the ‘good’ brands, affording them a competitive advantage, creating a virtual circle where the ‘good’ brands thrive and their competitors are compelled to follow their lead. If the reverse is true, it would indicate that sustainability communications have so far failed.
The BrandLogic Sustainability IQ Matrix in the margin (right column) lists a number of global brands in relation to:
VERTICALLY - the sustainability performance of the brand
HORIZONTALLY - the consumer perception of the brand
The blue diagonal line represents the theoretical ideal. The closer the brands are to the blue line, the higher the efficiency of their communication. As you can deduce from this matrix, the correlation between performance and perception can only be described as random. Without evidence of a pattern, one cannot even be sure that the brands closer to the blue line have ended up there by anything other than chance. The brands in the upper left box have failed to capitalise on their sustainability performance, wasting effort and money. The brands in the lower right box get more credit than they deserve, which may lead to accusations of greenwashing and costly campaigns to un-do the damage. Either way, for most of these brands communication has failed.
is there a different way?
Time has come for me to step up to the plate and describe how I propose to overcome these issues.
Let's start by accepting that there is no realistic prospect of consumers memorizing this kind of matrix about the brands they have to choose from in their daily lives. The best one could hope for is for sustainability-conscious consumers to each have a cluster of brands towards which he/she has a strong positive bias. This in itself would be enough to build a competitive advantage to the ‘good’ brands, and therefore drag the market in that direction. It is of course crucial for the method to contain a mechanism preventing poorer performing brands from misusing it.
My objective has been to understand how people form these clusters of favoured brands, why some brands disappear from memory quickly while others may last a lifetime. Some brands even play a part in defining a person's lifestyle, influencing his/her behaviour. Thanks to the insights provided by fMRI brain-scanning technology, we now better understand how information is processed. We can more confidently propose theories as to how people become receptive to cultural changes, and how such changes can spread. Very succintly, rather than trying to persuade people to deliberately act sustainably, the idea is to inspire people to act instinctively sustainable.
To market their products, 21st century communicators are doing just that. They seek to seduce rather than to persuade. They make their products synonymous with their brand, they associate the brand to a lifestyle, and they promote that brand and that lifestyle as aspirational values. In order to deliberately create a link between values and a brand, one method has come to dominate: sponsorship. It can be sponsorship of arts, causes, music, cinema, adventures, gaming or sports, each with its set of values, each with its set of advantages and limitations. I will come back to the reasons why this is so and how such values can be brought to affect consumer attitudes and behaviours.
I have worked in sports sponsorship for more than thirty years. I was always fascinated by the power of sponsorship. My colleagues and I were selling it, the companies were buying it, some of them being spectacularly successful at changing the public’s attitudes towards their brand. Others did not benefit at all. In all honesty, it seemed to be a black art. Today I can say that the sales arguments that I and others were using were fundamentally sound, but none of us would have been able provide a coherent explanation as to why based on empirical science.
Sponsorship has grown enormously over the past forty years. It has become a mainstream communication tool. Some brands have been built almost exclusively through sponsorship, at the expense of traditional advertising. Think of brands like Virgin, Ferrari, Marlboro, and the champion among them all: Red Bull.
a five-pillar method
Some years ago, I decided to look deeper into why sponsorship could do what it seemed to do. How could it so profoundly affect huge demographics? How could it affect demographics that are notoriously fickle and freethinking, such as teenagers? If the effects could be better understood, could the techniques be applied to other types of communication?
I have been astonished, for instance, to watch the ham-fisted efforts of some of the world’s largest corporations at re-branding themselves as sustainable, 21st century-ready entities. They clearly need to affect huge demographics. Their most crucial audience is of course the next generation. At best, progress is slow. The concept is not yet universally accepted, despite intense lobbying / promoting / advocating / advertising for nearly fifty years.
What if the factors that make sponsorship so effective could help? What if they could be adapted to affect attitudes towards a concept, a lifestyle, and not just brands?
That is what I have been investigating over the last two years. I was inspired by the work of Dr Robert Heath. As a psychologist working in the advertising world, he came to the conclusion that many methods in the advertising industry contradicted his learnings in his academic field: psychology. He tested his theories by comparing real-life campaigns. He found that some of the most successful campaigns baffled advertising industry insiders because they seemed to go against the communication theories they had been taught. That sounded a lot like my inklings about the sponsorship industry. Everybody was an expert in post-rationalising successful sponsorships. This is nothing more than falling into the post hoc fallacy: if one sponsorship is successful after doing A and B, that is not proof that A and B are keys to a successful sponsorship. Very few people were prepared to stake their professional reputation on making forward-looking statements about the effectiveness of a particular sponsorship.
Dr Heath’s findings are explained in his fascinating book "Seducing the Subconscious". I could see how his key findings could in fact explain some of the phenomena that I could observe, but not explain, in sponsorship. However, the differences between advertising and sponsorship are profound. His thesis could not simply be copied and pasted from one to the other. They provided cues that had to be re-arranged and re-interpreted. Some of the gaps needed to be confronted with academic research. Inspired by Dr Heath, I set about finding a more empirical explanation for the effects of sponsorship, by connecting the dots between my observations during my own career, real-life examples, and academic research in the domains of neurobiology and psychology.
My aim went beyond explaining why sponsorship works. Could the same techniques - the ones that work so well in promoting brands - be tweaked in order to promote an intangible concept? Think of the elephant in the room: the concept of 'sustainability'. That, surely, would be a more elevated goal, as governments, NGOs and corporations need to make that concept into an aspirational goal for the Millennials.
I believe I now hold that formula and I call it Instinctively Sustainable. It relies on five mutually indispensable pillars, symbolized by five verbs:
I will give a quick overview of each of them in the next few chapters. Following that, I will expand upon some of the key aspects. Finally, I will describe how the method could find a real-life application, by describing a hypothetical entertainment property built upon these five pillars.
The objectives of the method are twofold:
1. To embody an aspirational lifestyle in which sustainable behaviour is instinctive.
2. To allow selected companies to build heuristic connections between their brand and the adherents of that lifestyle.
by mario hytten
The more contorted the 'green dance', the shakier its power of persuasion.
Not the average consumer preparing her shopping list.
The brands appearing within the blue line are those for which consumers perception correlates well with the brand's sustainability performance. mn(Source: BrandLogic Sustainability Leadership Report 2012).
(click on picture to zoom in)