Chapter two

Chapter two

why the reticence?

comparing

performance and perception

 

This paper is based on the assumption that sustainability performance will have an increasing influence on companies’ bottom line. It therefore becomes crucial for corporations to ensure that the consumer-facing brand correctly reflects the sustainability credentials of the products it represents. If a brand is perceived to be less sustainable than it deserves, it will unfairly lose competitiveness against brands that enjoy a better perception. The brand owner is in that case missing out on the opportunity to turn its sustainability performance into a competitive advantage.

 

An exaggeratedly high perception of the brand’s sustainability, on the other hand, can also be detrimental, since it might lead to suspicions of ‘greenwashing’.

 

A correct correlation between a brand’s tangible performance in relation to sustainability, and the consumer’s intangible perception of the same, is of crucial importance to the market as a whole. In case of large discrepancies, green credentials would fail to perform the vital role of guiding corporate behaviour towards sustainability.    

 

In the last four years, three indexes have been monitoring and quantifying these factors for a number of brands: Interbrand’s Global Green Brands and Brand Logic’s

Sustainability Leadership Report each monitoring a selection of global brands, and The Sustainable Brands Index, which monitors Scandinavian brands. All three indexes, using slightly different but comparable methods, show that there are vast discrepancies between real, objectively measured, and perceived performance, based on polls with consumers.

 

Prof. John Peloza et al analysed the implications of BrandLogic’s performance/perception index in their paper ‘Sustainability: How stakeholder perceptions differ from corporate reality’.

 

(California Management Review, 2012):

[…] sustainability messages have become ubiquitous –  almost table stakes – for most large firms. In such an active marketplace, especially for firms who have not pursued leadership positions, it is difficult for companies to use sustainability to create meaningful differentiation from competitors and thus benefit from their investments. There is often a major gap between stakeholder perceptions and firm performance.

 […] A recent survey shows that the brand building potential from a reputation for sustainability is the number one perceived benefit to the organization from pursuing sustainability initiatives.

[…] In order for executives to capitalize on the brand-building potential of sustainability, they must create both real and perceived sustainability performance that is superior to competitors. However, previous researchers have noted relatively low awareness levels of corporate sustainability among customers, which limits the ability of firms to reap the relational rewards from sustainability.

[…] sustainability initiatives fail to deliver the enhanced stakeholder relations that CEOs view as critical to subsequent financial performance.

[…] companies with high actual performance but trailing perception have the potential to secure unrealized ROI by leveraging operational excellence through improved communications.

 

In other words, many of the companies that are betting their future on becoming more sustainable, some of which do score highly on the merit list, have not been able to translate that into added brand value; their communications have failed to align consumers’ perception of their brand with its actual sustainability credentials. Since we are talking about some of the biggest brands globally, it is not for a lack of resources. A 2012 survey by KPMG showed that 95% of the 250 largest global companies already report on their activities in relation to corporate responsibility.

 

(California Management Review, 2012) One study finds that sustainability initiatives are included in as many as 20% of mainstream advertising messages […] Communication expenses related to social responsibility are the third largest budget item for corporate communications departments in large firms.

 

With so much being spent on communication, how come consumers are not more engaged? How come they have such a hard time telling the good companies from the bad?

 

 

real challenges

Dr Heath commented in his book:

 

(Heath, 2012) ‘I am surprised why this extraordinarily powerful mechanism is not more widely used in public broadcast advertising’

 

Although the mechanism is powerful, creating subconscious connections between a brand and its sustainability credentials is not without its challenges. There are three main reasons that inhibit communicators: 

The first reason is a reticence by corporations to communicate sustainability at all, whether with traditional or innovative methods. The risk/reward factor for communicating remains unclear: what will journalists or activists attack as greenwashing? Do consumers really reward good companies with their custom? While in doubt, it is perhaps not surprising that some corporations opt for insipid sustainability communications, or to cautiously understate their actual commitment (greenmuting). While there are corporations that are undergoing remarkably bold transformations, there are also journalists who have unrealistic expectations of how quickly you can turn around large global organizations, and it is more difficult in some industries than others. The prospect of handling unreasonable expectations can intimidate many PR departments. A modus vivendi will eventually be reached, with some inevitable teeth-gnashing along the way. 

 

Dr Robèrt of The Natural Step coined a pithy characterization of industry’s procrastination about implementing sustainable practices:

‘I won’t start exercising until I’m in good shape.’

The quote is also applicable to the industry’s tentative approach to communications. 

 

The second reason is the core subject of this paper: the fallacy that sustainability ‘will sell itself’, on the basis that the arguments are compelling and humans will act rationally, as long as we deliver them the relevant science. This applies mainly to governments and non-profit organizations that have less exposure to the realities of the market. The issue was elegantly summarized by Melinda Gates in her TED speech What nonprofits can learn from Coca-Cola:  

 

’We often make the fundamental mistake of assuming that - when people need something – we don’t have to make them want that’

 

The third reason is a subtle variation of the previous one: because sustainability is such a virtuous and noble goal, some may feel that it is demeaning to resort to ‘marketing tricks’ to steer people to act upon it. It may be perceived as a real ethical dilemma. I would like them to reflect on the following: emotions are innate to humans.

They set us apart from robots. Communicating with humans without taking emotions into account, conscious or subconscious, is simply absurd. The subconscious is central to our ability to enjoy all art forms, and that’s how we want it to be. All incoming communications carry some degree of emotional content. When we pass them along, we again include our own emotional cues, intentionally or not. Experiments have shown that even single-cell creatures experience emotions (Heath, 2012) . Beings that did not form emotions from subconscious clues in nature were eliminated through evolution. Emotions therefore pre-date conscious thinking. They were necessarily meant to operate automatically and subconsciously. 

Are seduction, attraction and enticement manipulative? Should all choices be supported by persuasion, advice and advocacy? That would make life very laborious. As humans, we are in fact very happy that the majority of our choices are spontaneous and instinctive. Which ones should not be? Which messages should not be allowed to appeal to the subconscious? How do you strip all emotional cues from a message? Drawing those lines in the sand is of course impossible. We must simply accept that the subconscious is integral to human nature; it plays a very large part in our lives. It is vital to be aware and accepting of that. The problems arise when we try to deny it.

 

Like anything, emotions can be used for good as well as malevolent purposes. In this paper, promoting sustainable behaviours is considered good. Therefore there is no ethical dilemma in communicating emotions in this context, be it consciously or subconsciously. 

 

 

 

the ethical issue

 

Mayor of Whistler Ken Melamed was a pioneer in leveraging sport to promote sustainability, and this brought the 2010 Winter Olympics to his city. He alluded to the power of sports in conveying information when he endorsed The Natural Step’s sustainability framework: 

 

'This simple, science-based framework ought to be as well understood worldwide as the rules of soccer.'

 

It was hyperbole, of course, and it was certainly well intentioned. But it highlights the ethical paradox:

 

  • a science-based framework, even though it concerns our survival on Earth, cannot compete with the rules of a sport in either interest generated or audience reach

  • there is no known mechanism for transferring this interest (soccer rules, System 2 thinking) from sport to a scientific subject

  • the real objective is not for people to rationally understand science-based frameworks, it is for people to adopt new instinctive attitudes

  • there are known mechanisms to transfer instinctive attitudes from sports role-models to fans

  • these mechanisms communicate via  the subconscious part of the human psyche

 

Does this make them unethical? I suggest not, and this is why:

 

  • the majority of the communication that an individual is exposed to everyday is absorbed subconsciously

  • subconscious communication is also intrinsic to the way that humans communicate among each other

  • subconscious behaviour is inherent to human psychology and is responsible for the majority of decisions we make

  • an individual cannot consciously erase information that he has absorbed subconsciously, but he does retain the ability to voluntarily engage conscious thinking to override the actions that he might otherwise accomplish spontaneously

  • the most successful companies are very skilled at using subconscious communication to promote their brands and products

 

If the system is known and plays a dominant role in our lives, the simple fact of interacting with it cannot be unethical per se. In fact, one should consider the moral implications of leaving the monopoly of subconscious communications to the corporate world, considering:

 

  • the dignity of the objective of the stakeholders who promote sustainability

  • the absence of reasons or regulations to prevent the use of this type of communication by the ‘competition’: stakeholders who seek to protect commercial interests that conflict with a sustainability agenda

 

It is difficult to make a black and white distinction between ethical and non-ethical use of sponsorship. Since it is non-verbal, it would be impossible to legislate about the difference between the values a company intended to communicate, and the values that fans subconsciously perceived from the sponsorship.

 

 

examples: the good and the bad

Subconscious communication has of course also been used to promote ‘bad’ products. Cigarettes are an egregious example of this. Product placement in films clearly relies on implicit, subconscious communication. Analysis of the tobacco industry and Hollywood’s tenacious tactics to maintain smoking scenes in movies, systematically circumventing attempts to ban the practice, makes for depressing reading. The same companies are now active in Asia, where they seek to identify smoking with a glamorous western lifestyle. The ethical controversy lies with the product and its promoters, however, not with the practice of product placement or sponsorship. Nothing prevents Hollywood from playing its part in reversing the damage, by ‘un-placing’ cigarettes in films and making it cool not to smoke.

What about the use of sports sponsorship to promote dignified causes? In the words of Madiba:

‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.’ (Nelson Mandela, 2000).

On the occasion of South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rubgy World Cup Final in Johannesburg, his inspired use of the symbolism of sport resulted in 65,000 white rugby-fans chanting his name. This is often cited as a turning point for post-apartheid South Africa.

NBA's David Stern explains (see sidebar) how the league initially had to overcome media skepticism, who tended to define basketball as a "black sport". It may of course have been a case of racism overriding their better judgment as professional sports experts. But it may be simpler: even professional sports experts underestimate how powerfully the passion for sports can alter perceptions and attitudes. NBA reached dizzying popularity despite a majority of African-Americans players, but that was just the beginning. The influence of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James went much beyond building NBA's popularity: they impacted US society, by making it natural for American fans of all ethnicities to adopt Afro-American profiles as their role-models.

Rasmussen Reports (Rasmussen Reports,  April 16-17, 2013) continues to survey the American  public's view of Jackie Robinson who in 1947 became the first African-American to play in the MLB. In 2013, 59% of Americans had a favourable or very favourable view of Robinson, up 6% from the same measurement in 2007. That year the MBL published an interesting opinion (Robinson affected American society, Justice B.Hill, mlb.com) on the effects that Jackie Robinson had on American society:

 

(Robinson affected American society, Justice B.Hill, mlb.com): Jackie Robinson couldn't have known what Branch Rickey's "great experiment" would do to the socio-political landscape in America. In fact, could anybody have known that putting Robinson, a black man, onto a baseball field with a team of white men would do for America what nothing else had done for race relations since the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson legalized segregation?

"That's almost an impossible question to answer," said Robert Ruck, a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on black baseball. "I think that if Robinson's arrival in the Majors had been a chaotic social disaster, it would have made it more difficult for this country to change."

While racial integration in the US remains very much work in progress, it is undeniable that the NFL, MLB and NBA provided the opportunity of elevating African-American personalities to role-models that were idolized by sports fans of all ethniticies and political loyalties.     

 

(Robinson affected American society, Justice B.Hill, mlb.com) Historians like Ruck see Rickey's experiment, which opened the way for Robinson to break the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as a trigger to a number of events that followed. It played a significant role, Ruck said, in fueling the move toward integration.

[...] Historians like Ruck (senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh) see Rickey's experiment, which opened the way for Robinson to break the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as a trigger to a number of events that followed. It played a significant role, Ruck said, in fueling the move toward integration. [...] "In subtle, subconscious ways, it makes it easier for white people to accept black people and to hire black people in positions they had not been hired before."

[...] "Robinson created a sort of picture that all society should be integrated," said Titus Brown, a professor of history and African-American Studies at Florida A&M University. "That's why we could see a shifting and changing in society in the mid-1950s."

Because of the emotion it generates, each sport is a geyser of its very own biases, favoritisms, inclinations, preferences, predispositions and chauvinisms. Because of the fundamentally playful nature of sport, these biases are mostly benign in nature. They can therefore be vented freely, often mishievously but mostly amicably and light-heartedly. In a future chapter we will examine in detail how these biases take form and their effect. For the moment, let's just say that sports exist in what could be described as a parallel universe. Objectives are unambiguous and results are immediate. Fans perceive sport to be more authentic and transparent than their daily reality. They embrace it with all their defenses lowered. The profusion of stories and biases generated by the sport is so dominant, so emotionally driven, that societal biases of race, religion, politics or sexual inclination are easily drowned. Perceptions are almost exclusively shaped within the sports microcosm, something both Prof.Brown implied in his comments:

"But you've got to remember that Robinson was an exceptional player, so if he had been a failure, it would have impacted the way people viewed blacks [...]"

The competitiveness of the major leagues imply that the MLB, NBA and NFL choose their players based on sporting criteria and little else. Any social effects are unintentional by-products, however welcome.

That brings us back to the ethical issue: is it acceptable to subconsciously influence public perceptions when it is unintentional, but not when it is intentional? When it is a social message but not when it is a commercial message? When it is a good message but not when it is a bad one?

Who will police what is conscious/subconscious, intentional/unintentional, social/commercial, good/bad messages? Or even whether there is an intention of disseminating a subconscious message at all? We may be talking about a phenomenon that represents 95% of the perceptions that people absorb subconsciously throughout their waking hours, from all sources and through all senses. It is so intrinsic to the reality of being human beings that it is naïve to think that it can be regulated, and unethical to try.

If anything, it is probably healthy for each of us to be conscious about the degree to which we are influenced by the subconscious.

 

concluding remarks

  • The failure of sustainability communications is being measured: the public’s perception of brands is a long way from reflecting their objectively measured performance

  • It is important to improve the correlation between performance and perception, otherwise consumer behaviour will fail to contribute to motivating the market

  • There are understandable reasons why no serious efforts have been launched so far to communicate sustainability via large-scale sponsorships. There are challenges to overcome

  • Subconscious communications are part of our daily lives, including in commercial communications. It cannot be unethical to use the method, especially when the goal is virtuous

  • Subconscious communication through sport has sometimes been used to promote products that some may disagree with. More relevant to the subject of this white paper, they have also played a role in some historical advances towards a better society

Mario Hytten, author of the white paper "Instinctively sustainable through effortless communications"

by mario hytten

sustainability communications

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Melinda Gates on the difference between avoidance and aspirational marketing.

  • is anybody measuring the effects of ineffective communications?

  • what has prevented sustainability stakeholders from adopting this earlier?

  • is there an ethical issue?

  • what are the best and worst examples of the method being applied?

Marlboro is no longer a sponsor of Ferrari or is it? Our subcousious can remind this can of subtle information

Marlboro is no longer a sponsor of Ferrari.

Or is it?

David Stern: 'if you worked in the NBA in the 70s, you had to believe that America was a good country...'

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table of contents:

why the

reticence?

​​​​© 2018 Mario Hytten

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