Tag Archives: marketing

How long does it take to ‘go sustainable’?

A lot of my posts have been in and around how you can get people to change their behaviour.  In particular, how can you get people to act in a way that is more ‘sustainable’.  To me this usually means buying less stuff or eating less meat.  I’ve been thinking about trying to solve this from an advertising or communications perspective because that’s where my (work) experience lies.  However, I’ve come to realise that thinking of the issue of sustainability through the lens of advertising is this is far too simplistic.

This is because advertising, on the whole, works by trying to encourage you to choose a brand when you are already thinking about buying that category.  So, feel like a pint?  Choose Stella over the others for these reasons.  Need to buy some washing powder?  Then this is why Ariel is the one to buy.

(I know this is a gross over simplication, but when you think about a lot of categories, it’s true – all FMCG, fashion, health and beauty, car insurance etc etc).

So, advertising is typically short form (from posters up to 30′ TV ads) which is proven (sometimes) to encourage people to buy more of a particular brand.  The important thing however is how much of the work the consumer has already done for the advertiser.  For example, the consumer is typically  a) in a ‘consuming’ mindset – they have money in their pocket  b) are in the environment (e.g. shop or online) where you are available c) are in the mood to buy from the category (e.g. after work in the pub, or in the supermarket doing the weekly shop).  As a result, all the advertising has to do is to tip people to buy your brand rather than the competitor, which are likely to be next to them.  It’s pretty simple job really.

Now consider that against communications to try and get people to buy less.  This is going to be far more difficult because it’s about reversing the ‘consuming mindset’.  To get people to consider whether or not they actually need to buy what they are thinking of buying in the first place.  It’s about getting people to value the value of ‘stuff’ and what role it plays in their lives.  As a result, it’s about consumerism and meaning and what’s important etc etc.  To do this is huge task that’s going to take a lot more communication than a 30′ ad or a poster.  So, how long does it take to think like this?

Not 30′, more like a year, I reckon.  This is because that’s how long it’s taken me.  To change the way I think about shopping and eating meat – such that I’ve reduced both by a considerable amount.  And I’ve been thinking about this a lot and talking to people about it a lot.  Now, it might be possible to get people to do it quicker than me – I hope so and I guess that’s the challenge – but the recognition of the time frame it’s taken me has helped me frame the scale of the task that faces us all.  It’s a big task.

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This is interesting.  This was in Selfridges in London.  It was the in-store work to promote their Sale.  It’s telling consumers about the pointlessness of the purchases they are about to make.  It’s irony gone mad.  In a good way.

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Clear and Present Danger

The thing about humans is that we usually only react to danger when it is immediate and apparent.  So, when the bear came into the cave of our neanderthal ancestors, their ‘flight or fight’ response was invoked and they either ran away or got out their spears and stood their ground.  Evolutionarily, we haven’t changed much and the problem with Climate Change is there is no Clear and Present Danger – you can’t see the build up of CO2 and the ice-caps are melting in far away lands.  It may well be that we’ve already passed the point of no return, but it’s possible that we still won’t change the way we behave towards until the polar bear is in our front lawn trying to jump off his passing piece of ice into the living room.

This isn’t great, so it’s good to look for examples of how consumer behaviour has dramatically changed before it’s too late and seeing what we can learn.  And there’s a great example of this at The Ministry of Food Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The Ministry of Food was set up in September 1939 at the outset of the Second World War to manage the nations food suppy.  One significant part of its work was a huge public information campaign to change how the Britain related to food in order to benefit the war effort.  It was a huge exercise which influenced every aspect of the nation’s relationship with food – from encouraging people to grow their own, to what to eat and the need to minimise wastage.  So, it is a great example of consumer change at a national level that provides many pointers for the modern day Climate Change fraternity.  These include:

Establish the result.

In war it’s fairly binary, you either win or lose.  But clearly linking your actions to the final, positive result in a simple, memorable statement is a good start.  It’s like ‘Just do it’, but with a purpose.

The interesting thing about Climate Change is how do we know when we’ve succeeded?  At the moment it’s framed in the negative – the seas won’t rise; C02 levels won’t exceed certain levels.   But where’s the positive?  People are usually motivated by the addition of something positive, rather than the absence of negative.  You don’t sell toothpaste on the fact that you’re teeth won’t fall out if you don’t use it.  You sell it in the fact you have shiny, healthy teeth if you do.

Who’s the enemy?

Related to the above point, in the war the enemy was clear – the Nazis – clearly represented by Hitler and the swastika.  They were the bad guys and clearly fitted into our age old concept of good vs. evil.  With Climate Change, who is the enemy that we can clearly identify with?  Is it Fossil Fuels?  Oil companies?  The West?  The East?  People going to the next Copenhagen?  And how do you represent whichever you chose in a simple way that everyone can understand, as an idea and as an image?  In a way, the Nazis made it easy for us to identify them and therefore to hate them.  

The Ministry of Food took advantage of this and was able to not only talk about the positive consequence of acting in the right way, they also communicate what would happen if you didn’t. 

Be specific. 

There’s something really interesting in this, which is about linking a seemingly minor action to the broader war effort and ultimate victory.  A lot of the behaviour change around Climate Change is like this – use less plastic bags, turn the heating down etc. etc.  But, do we ever see them connected to the bigger goal in such a simple and effective way as this:

Another, and perhaps more powerful example than this was in the exhibtion.  It encouaged you do eat potatoes andnot bread with you meal if you wanted to fill yourself up.  The rationale was that the UK could produce its own potatoes but it had to import the wheat to make bread from North America.  The wheat would come over in ships which ran the risk of being torpedoed by German subs.  So, the message was ‘Eat Potatoes and Not Bread and Save Lives’. 


This might be seen as a patronising now, but a great deal of the Ministry of Food output educated the nation about food.  From what size of alloment you need and what to plant in it, to what food has the most nutritonal value, to how to build a chicken run.  They produced an endless stream of informative, imaginative and educative material to keep people interested and motivated to act. 

The Climate Change movement seems to be doing a good job of education (in the UK) and we becoming clear about what steps we need to take to minimise our own carbon emissions.  However, if we were able to ‘Establish the Result’ and define a clear enemy could we expect to see a higher take-up of the activities we know we are supposed to perform? 

Extend the metaphor. 

This is a small point, but interesting.  Below you can see how they extended the idea of the Allies vs. the Nazis into every part of the campaign in how they educated people about different varieties of guest in your garden:

Overall, when you go through the exhibition, you get a sense of the huge volume and variety of output that the Ministry of Food produced.  From posters to pamphlets; from Food Flashes before movies to books.  They seemed to cover every relevant message in every available outlet.  I wonder what the equivalent media spend woudl have been today, but it seems likely that we haven’t seen many campaigns the size of it since.  There is a degree of realism required when it comes to Climate Change – could the government ever pull off anything of this scale again?  It could be argued that the government would need to spend even more money to turn things around because the market is saturated with commercial messages encouraging consumers to ‘buy and do more’, when any message from them would effectively be to ‘do less’.  So, perhaps part of the strategy would be to halt some or all commerical advertising.  Which wouldn’t go down well.

But did it work?  Well we won the war, so people who did dig, did help the victory.  But there was this more informative fact at the start of the exhibition which shows that they did manage to invoke a huge consumer change across the nation which would have resulted in thousands of people spending millions of hours in a new type of relationship with food, for the greater good.  The challenge is, can we replicate something like this again for the benefit of saving the planet, rather than just Britain?:

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To get people to do less, you have to give them more

In doing a bit of part time tutoring with a friend at the London College of Communications, we asked the students to come up with a simple, creative solution to a difficult problem.

The problem was ‘How do you get people to eat less meat?’

This is interesting of course from a sustainability point of view as Nicholas Stern says, the single thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint the most is to become vegetarian.  Now, imagining that marketing can change people’s belief system about meat and get them to cut it out altogether is too big a challenge.  However, encouraging meat-eaters to eat less meat seems a reasonable and achievable thing for marketing to tackle.

The students came back with a range of interesting ideas.  These included humanizing the animals – by giving the chicken a name like ‘Eric’ in a Disney way –  so people would feel guilty about eating something with a familiar first name.  Or telling people that eating meat was bad for you and placing a bag of vegetables and pulses next to the meat with the same nutritional content.  Or even promoting Fundamentalist Christianity because apparently in the Bible it says ‘Thou shall not eat animals’ or similar.

But whilst there were lots of interesting and potentially valid ideas, the majority avoided addressing the reason why people eat meat in the first place – it’s really tasty.  There’s just no denying that a bacon sandwich, a well cooked fillet steak or a Sunday roast tastes fantastic.

Generating ideas which side-step this basic truth seem less like to succeed than an idea that would in someway address it.

Now, you could be comparative – ‘Is that tasty burger worth a painful death for a cow?’.   But I don’t think that this is going to work.  People know that burgers come from cows and they still eat them.  Telling them the cow suffered before it died isn’t really a big deal if you’ve accepted that it’s going to be killed to be eaten anyway.

So, I don’t think that coming up with righteous reasons not to eat meat that sound like they’ve come from a bunch of vegetarian do-gooders is ever going to work.  Because they won’t embrace the fundamental truth that people like eating meat because it tastes great.

Instead, what if you embraced this fact and put that at the heart of your message in a way that satisfied your objective of encouraging people to eat less meat?

There was one student who did just this.  Their idea was about encouraging people to eat meat once a week because it would taste better.

To put that into a proposition would be something like: Meat tastes even better the less often you eat it

This takes the truth about why people eat meat and makes you understand how you can savour and heighten the delicious flavour by experiencing on a less regular basis.  And it makes sense.  People understand the basic principle of ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ and that you appreciate something more when you’ve had to wait for it/save up for it/look forward to.

So, if you have the ham, cheese and pickle sandwich every day, then the meat for dinner might not taste as good as if you just went for the cheese and pickle ones instead.  Or if you have a non-meat dinner a couple of nights a week, then it makes the beef on Saturday night and the roast chicken on a Sunday taste even more special.  This isn’t about getting people to stop eating meat altogether, it’s about reducing the number of meals eaten a week which include meat by one of two, which would add up to a lot of animals in the course of a year.

This sort of thinking seems to be absent from a lot of messaging about climate change.  We seem to be stuck in a world where the messaging has been written by the equivalent of the vegetarian do-gooders.  Take less flights, use less plastic bags, turn the heating down, buy less stuff.  This may work for the Green Do-Gooders who seem to have written them, but I doubt it’s going to work for the mainstream majority who like flying, using plastic bags, having warm houses and buying stuff more than worrying about the possibility of something called Climate Change.

The messaging needs to evolve and start with embracing why people enjoy doing these things in a way that ultimately encourages them to do less of them, rather than starting from the premise that doing them at all is bad.

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