Category Archives: marketing

Leveraging Hunter-Gatherer Instincts for Successful Green Marketing

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Few aspects of human nature are as challenging to green marketers as the human bias to value the present over the future. This trait developed over millennia to serve survival needs, and remains deeply entrenched despite its tendency to lead us into behavior that over the long term may be destructive of ourselves and our species. For example, researchers show that asking people to consider the needs of coming generations as well as their own is largely ineffective. And our brains are just not wired to respond to slow-moving, novel dangers: for example, climate change doesn’t get us moving the same way that large animals do. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

So where are the leverage points for getting those instincts to work for, rather than against us? One is “life history theory,” which suggests that people who live in a dangerous, unstable environment tend to be more impulsive and discount the future more than those in more stable and predictable environments. The implication: Don’t paint pictures of a scary, unpredictable future if you want people to act responsibly. In the face of uncertainty, people will reach for the short-term payoff (for example hoarding, and increasing resource use) over their long-term interests. This implies that strategies emphasizing a recognizable future are more likely to encourage behavior that takes the needs of the future into account.

Disregarding intangible concerns is another leftover from our hunter-gatherer past. Our brains evolved when behaviors and consequences were clearly linked (hunt all the game in the area and go hungry, eat something bad and become sick or die). But today our actions are almost entirely divorced from the environment, and our senses are not involved with the consequences of those actions. For example, when we purchase something made from wood harvested with unsustainable logging practices, we don’t feel the effects of deforestation. We feel the attractive price point.

However, if tangible evidence that affects the senses can be harnessed to let people know when their actions are leading to detrimental outcomes, they may change their behavior. The authors of the paper linked to above cite the standard use of an added noxious odor to natural gas to cue people to the fact that they are being poisoned, and suggest that adding a colorant to harmful air emissions to show their levels might lead to changed behavior. This makes perfect sense in the abstract, but I’m not sure that adding colorant to air pollution is likely to happen. I’m curious about what other, smaller cues might be created to bring people closer to their part in the cause and effect cycle. How might we involve the senses to make environmental problems feel real?

Finally, the innate human appreciation for natural beauty may be the greatest asset available to shape positive actions for the environment. The authors suggest exposing urban children to animals, nature, and the outdoors as a way to foster a long-term commitment to the health of the planet. This may be the best green marketing of all.


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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Harnessing Competition and Imitation for Greener Outcomes

By Bonnie J. Wallace

Some academic researchers believe that the excessive consumption threatening our planet finds its roots in “people’s innate desire for status that improves reproductive opportunities.” They provide evidence that this tendency is neither a product of Western culture, capitalism, or advertising, but reaches back to ancient Egypt, feudal Europe, and Amazon tribes etc. (See The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship).

The overall strategic takeaway from accounting for the human desire for relative status is that requesting that people be content with their current status, or worse, lower their status, is very unlikely to succeed. Instead, they offer several ways that are likely to work with this drive and produce greener behavioral choices. Competitive altruism and imitation are two impulses that can be effectively used for green marketing purposes.

Competitive altruism suggests that people can be motivated to act in ways that support the environment if their actions are visible to others, and thus support their relative status. For example, sales on the Toyota Prius, a car that visibly broadcasts its owner’s green cred, remained nearly flat between 2005 and 2006, despite the introduction of significant U.S. pro-environmental tax credits for 2006. However, 2007 Prius sales increased by 68.9% over 2006 sales, coinciding with expiration of its tax credits, further bolstering the theory that not only did the tax credit not boost sales, but that the higher price increased its desirability as a status signal, communicating the driver’s level of commitment to being environmentally responsible. This is not to imply that tax credits don’t work as motivators, particularly in the absence of visible indicators of competitive altruism. It may suggest that the desire for relative status is more powerful than the desire to save money, however.

Imitation—or unconsciously copying the behavior of others—is an adaptive trait that saves us from the cost of individually learning everything through trial and error. Because this strong inclination toward mimicry is much more powerful than any “should,” if people can be persuaded that many others are following the desired behavior, they are more likely to follow suit. This strategy has been employed successfully to increase rates of recycling, decrease littering, and energy use.

The key to effective messaging is framing the statistics to emphasize the large number of people engaging in the desired behavior, even if they are still a true minority. The authors suggest the example of reframing a carpool statistic from relative numbers “(‘5% of city residents carpool each week’ to absolute numbers ‘more than 250,000 city residents carpool each week!’).” Speaking for myself, 5% seems unimpressive, and 250k seems incredibly impressive.

While it may not be big news that the human impulse toward competition and imitation is a strong driver for destructive behavior, I find evidence for its evolutionary basis to be compelling. A little tweaking of marketing efforts can use those impulses to create greener, more constructive outcomes.


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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Why AT&T’s Eco-Rating System Is off the Mark

AT&T has launched its eco-rating system in stores, allowing customers to compare cell phones’ environmental impacts. The system rates handsets on 15 criteria, granting a point for each environmentally preferable criterion the handset possesses. Phones with 14-15 points will get 5 stars;  phones with 5 or fewer points will get no stars. AT&T expects most phones it sells will fall somewhere in the middle.

AT&T has articulated the following goals for this new green labeling scheme:

  • Engage consumers and respond to growing interest
  • Drive industry improvement on sustainability
  • Help set the agenda for more sustainable products
  • Anticipate regulations
  • Demonstrate AT&T leadership

As our recent research shows, a growing number of companies are beginning to take responsibility for the environmental impacts in their supply chains. AT&T’s initiative is not an example of this. Rather than stipulating sustainability standards itself, AT&T puts the onus on consumers to determine the relative importance of the environmental performance of the handsets and the manufacturers that make them.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But here’s what is: AT&T has just created the world’s 434th ecolabel (if you believe the tally of the Ecolabel Index).

Does the world really need another green label? Perhaps. But what it doesn’t need is the continued proliferation of brand-specific labeling. The more labels that cover the same product categories the more confusion and likely consumer indifference.

Last year AT&T competitor Sprint led the development of a standard for “environmentally preferred mobile devices” with UL Environment and has committed to certifying all handsets it sells with that standard. The AT&T labeling scheme uses some of the criteria from that standard, and blends in some others. The result is a proprietary set of hoops its suppliers need to jump through that are different from the hoops that may be set by other carriers.

Why is this a problem? Because suppliers are becoming overloaded with sustainability information requests and lack standard measures of environmental performance. In our research, we asked sustainability executives at manufacturers and retailers about the biggest challenges they faced in obtaining environmental sustainability information from their supply chains. The top answer? A lack of standard ways of measuring environmental performance, a lament shared by 62 percent of the respondents to our survey. The introduction of proprietary product rating standards only going makes this worse, and could well hamper rather than help the cause of driving sustainability in the supply chain.

AT&T said it introduced the eco-rating system in part because it wanted to show leadership. Going it alone, though, is an outdated mode of leadership, especially in this arena. A better model is the one embodied in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. In that organization, dozens of manufacturers and retailers, including direct competitors, came together to develop a single sustainability measurement standard for their entire industry. The coalition unveiled version 1.0 of that standard just this month. They’ve deferred the possible development of a consumer-facing label to a later date.

AT&T can’t really say for sure what impact the new labeling scheme will have on its supply chain. But it is hopeful that it will be good for the top line. According to market researcher NMI, which AT&T hired to help understand the marketing benefits of ecolabels and green seals, “seals increase purchase intent.”

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Greener Products and the Pitfalls of Consumer Research

You sell a range of consumer products. There is a “green” story to tell consumers. But you don’t know the best way to tell it.

Or, your company has recently introduced new packaging or a new product formulation that has environmental benefits. But you don’t know how much consumers really care. Or whether the product changes are going to influence consumers’ purchase decisions.

You wish you knew the answers to questions  before the product teams actually designed the projects.

I recently chatted with a marketing director at a global consumer products company. These are the challenges he faces all the time. A few things are holding him back:

  1. The company’s market research is not well suited to the task. They do regular tracking studies to monitor the health of their brands. These are useful for identifying trends but not so much for understanding what is driving those trends.
  2. The brand managers are not always invested in the research. Like many companies, one department is creating insights and another department is supposed  to use them. Sometimes brand managers are thoroughly engaged in the commissioning of research, with a clear idea of how they will use the results. But sometimes they are passive recipients of data generated elsewhere in the organization. Brand managers are less likely to act on research they don’t feel they own.
  3. Key product decisions are committed before the research is done. Product teams and R&D are often selecting materials or tweaking packaging based on generalized directives or engineering concerns, not insights about what consumers value. By the time a product decision is locked in, it’s too late to influence that decision with consumer insights. The best you can do is learn how best to position what you’ve already done.

What should this company do? Here are a couple of recommendations:

  1. Use appropriate research tools. As the marketing director told me, consumers like all kinds of things. The challenge in crafting a message or designing a product is determining the relative importance of various product attributes, alone and in combination. A research technique called conjoint analysis is often used to help shed light on questions like this. But it can be costlier and more complex than other kinds of research, and many companies make use of it only rarely.
  2. Use research earlier in the process. The process of selecting materials is driven by engineering and cost concerns more than consumer preferences at a lot of companies. It can be really eye opening to employ a well-designed consumer research program to inform the product design and formulation process, alongside the harder criteria that companies tend to use.

What are your thoughts? Is your company doing this well?

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Sustainability in the Auto Industry: BMW vs. Ford

Last week’s Sustainable Brands conference was stimulating and inspiring as usual. I hope I will come around to posting a series of observations from the conference, but I’ll  start with this one: the contrast between how BMW and Ford presented their green product strategies.

BMW was represented by Uwe Dreher, the global head of marketing for BMW i, the company’s new electric-vehicle sub-brand. Dreher opened his presentation by sharing some findings from BMW’s ethnographic research that the company found troubling. In the affluent neighborhoods around the San Francisco Bay Area it is not uncommon to find a Toyota Prius in the driveway of a $5 million home. If affluent consumers, who could afford a BMW, were buying the relatively affordable Prius instead because of its environmental caché, this presented a threat to BMW. Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the company found young people are no longer enthusiastic about getting a driver’s license and less keen to drive than youngsters of prior generations. (General Motors has found something similar in the U.S.) The streets of Tokyo are too congested, said Dreher; it’s no longer fun to drive there. And public transportation presents far less hassle. If the young no longer saw driving as fun, what did this say for the future of BMW in Japan?

These threats were an impetus behind BMW’s electric vehicle strategy, which is intended to appeal to the affluent and the young, by combining the sex appeal and prestige of a BMW with the superior environmental performance of a next-generation all-electric vehicle. The strategy is a sound response to what the company’s research turned up, except for one detail: the company’s green strategy is intended to increase consumption, from the moderately priced Prius to the luxury-priced BMW i8 and from parsimonious and efficient public transportation to the sexy BMW i3. Is this in fact a green strategy?

As a mass-market automaker, Ford has taken a different course, embracing a more populist and inclusive strategy. John Viera, Ford’s global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters, described the company’s broad line of electric and hybrid vehicles, which will include seven models by early 2013. Then Viera acknowledged that the migration to electric vehicles is not going to happen overnight. For quite some time people are going to buy internal combustion engine vehicles. Ford’s strategic response: a commitment to offer the most fuel-efficient vehicle (or one tied for most fuel efficient) in every automotive category. The idea being: no matter what kind of car you need, you can have the most fuel-efficient one if you buy a Ford. That’s an impressive brand promise, one that requires a significant commitment.

The paths chosen by BMW and Ford will be more significant for the impact they have on the industry today and in the future than for the vehicles that roll off their assembly lines over the next couple of years. BMW produced just 1.7 million cars in 2011, less than 3 percent of global car production; the BMW i brand will likely account for tiny fraction of its sales in 2013-14. But the BMW i series may help popularize the use of ultra-light-weight materials–such as the carbon composite to be used in the new line’s passenger cabs–in production vehicles, which will help the industry improve fuel efficiency over time. Ford, meanwhile, sold about 5.7 million vehicles in 2011. Its competitive positioning around fuel efficiency should help spur innovation among automakers as well.

What are your thoughts?

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Work With Evolution, Not Against it, to Craft Green Messages

By Bonnie J. Wallace

How can marketers design campaigns that motivate good environmental choices? Human nature seems to work against behaviors that would be in the best interest of the collective, as the well-known tragedy of the commons metaphor illustrates. But there may be some good news: in the Spring 2012 edition of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, the authors of The Evolutionary Bases for Sustainable Behavior: Implications for Marketing, Policy, and Social Entrepreneurship argue that these same behavioral tendencies can be harnessed to encourage more sustainable choices and behavior if they are properly understood.

Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie M. Cantú, and Mark van Vugt propose five different adaptive tendencies that form the evolutionary bases for our most destructive environmental and social behavior:

  1. Propensity for Self-Interest
  2. Desire for Relative Status
  3. Unconsciously Copying the Behavior of Others
  4. Valuing the Present over the Future, and
  5. Disregarding Impalpable Concerns

They then outline classic messaging approaches that fail to work as a result of these evolved tendencies, and suggest more effective approaches that leverage unconscious human nature. This is the first of a series of blog posts that explore their findings.

Behaviors that helped us to thrive when we were hunter-gatherers now threaten to destroy us and many other species. Our environment has changed much more quickly than our ability to develop new adaptive behaviors. If we employ strategies designed to change behavior that don’t take into account our evolutionary wiring, we risk making no difference—or worse, exacerbating the very problem we were trying to solve.

For example, the first ancestral tendency cited is the propensity for self-interest. Natural selection pushes us toward making choices that will be more likely to ensure the survival of our genes. Thus “a campaign urging people to use restraint in water use actually increased water use because people feared that others would be unwilling to restrain themselves.” A more effective approach could be tying the reduction of water use to keeping it available for their own children, grandchildren, etc.

Reciprocal altruism is another self-interest evolutionary trait that harnesses cooperation between interdependent non-kin groups. Cause marketing holds great promise in leveraging that tendency. However, typical cause marketing approaches (buy this widget and we’ll donate X$ to Y charity!) get the order of the give wrong: the authors cite new research showing that “a message in hotel rooms informing guests that the hotel had already donated to an environmental cause on behalf of its guests increased towel use by 26%.” Note that this order, where the requester of the behavior change makes the first give, actually allows the recipients to reciprocate!

Indirect reciprocity is a related trait that is tied to reputation and increased status, and can be a very persuasive motivator for individuals and corporations alike. Desire to enhance or protect reputation prompts many individuals to make conspicuous green choices, and can push corporations to put sustainable practices into effect. The authors point to the consumer-led “name and shame” campaign that compelled McDonald’s to discontinue plastic packaging.

Harnessing our unconscious desire to act in our genetic self-interest is a powerful way to shift behavior, both on an individual, and a corporate level. Understand these sometimes counter-intuitive motivators can help marketers craft messages that lead to desired outcomes instead of unintended ones.


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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Coming On Too Strong?! Tuning Green Marketing Messaging

By Bonnie J. Wallace

For those of us working to promote green business practices, it can seem self-evident that these issues are important. It follows that the language we use in messaging is frequently assertive, reflecting that assumption. But is that the most effective way to get our target audience to take action?

In the January 2012 edition of the Journal of Marketing, Ann Kronrod, Amir Grinstein, and Luc Wathieu say that it depends entirely on the target audience. Their research in Go Green!! Should Environmental Messages Be So Assertive?? shows that imperative language can be a very effective means to reach people already persuaded of a subject’s importance, but—here is the critical part—can actually decrease compliance among those people for whom the importance is not clear. In other words, assertive language in environmental and social justice messaging can be doing more harm than good, depending on who is on the receiving end.

This is particularly interesting given that this same team reports that in an examination of real slogans from http://www.ThinkSlogans.com, environmental slogans were nearly three times more often assertive than a random mix of slogans for consumer goods (57% vs. 19%). Examples used of such imperative messaging included Greenpeace’s “Stop the catastrophe” and Denver Water’s “Use only what you need.”

According to Kronrod et al, “The drawbacks in assertive phrasing have been extensively documented by researchers in communications, consumer behavior, and psycholinguistics. The overwhelming evidence accumulated thus far is that assertiveness interacts with consumers’ drive for freedom in a counterpersuasive manner.” In other words, nobody wants to be told what to do unless they already intend to do it.

The good news: research shows that a softer approach, acknowledging the difficulty of compliance, or simply suggesting/encouraging a behavior choice instead of demanding it (“You could bike to work once a week” vs. “Bike to work once a week!”) is considerably more effective, because it recognizes the perceived conflict between personal agendas and public good.

Another effective approach when messaging an audience that’s less committed to an environmentally friendly agenda is to first elevate the importance of the issue before making any requests. Showing a film clip, or photos that highlight the importance of the given issue can do this.  Once an issue is perceived as important, the audience is then more likely to be persuaded by assertive language.

This brings us to the flip side of these findings. For an audience that is already committed to the importance of an issue, softer language can be irritating, as the message is perceived to be out of line with the urgency felt.

My takeaway: it’s critical to align language to perception. The authors of this study note that it’s still unknown whether assertive language in green requests leads to long-term effects on behavior. Until then, we can at least meet people where they are for an immediate impact, without jeopardizing future credibility. What do you think??!!


Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.

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