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Green Sky Thinking: A nudge in the right direction

Date posted: April 29, 2013

Colwyn Elder ?>

by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) The school of Behavioural Economics, or Nudge theory as it has popularly become known, has enjoyed increasing attention from our industry over recent years. It was pushed through the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) by advocate Rory Sutherland, during his year as chairman (see one of Rory’s hugely entertaining talks here) and has been growing in popularity ever since.

But surely this is not new news? Surely, if advertising isn’t in the business of behaviour change, then we should all go home? Most advertising is colwyn elderrequired to meet a specific business objective, which in turn, usually requires overcoming a behavioural challenge of sorts. Traditional advertising models achieve this is by convincing customers that Brand A is more desirable than Brand B, through promising various rational and emotional benefits that satisfy customer needs and wants. When all things are equal, we create desire through softer stuff like brand image, aspiration and sometimes, just killer advertising that shows a gorilla playing the drums to a Phil Collins soundtrack, in lieu of eating chocolate.

When we look at the sustainability space, these traditional models are called into question, and often a very different type of “sell” is required. Using transport as an example; traditional advertising models may retain their relevance in the case of selling a hybrid or electric car over a less eco-friendly option (after all, it’s still a car), but convincing someone to cycle to work, take a bus, or carpool is a different story, as here a fundamental shift in lifestyle behaviour is required. In his new book: Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour, Oliver Payne says that this new behaviour is often perceived as “side or down shifting” and “rarely considered desirable – yet the creation of desire is where the communication business do their best work”. To make it even more challenging, the current behaviour is usually so habitual and embedded that it is often very difficult to shift.

So how can behavioural economics nudge people in the right direction towards more sustainable living? Oliver has successfully distilled a wealth of academic behaviour change theory into 19 simple ways to “ask for change”, which is well worth the read. What struck me, as a parent of two young boys, is that most behaviour change principles aren’t rocket science, but something every parent can relate to, particularly when managing a four-year-old. Following are my top five, including examples:

  1. Make it funVW Fun theory believes the best way to change people’s behaviour for the better is to make it fun. By turning a staircase into a piano, they succeeded in getting people off the escalator and onto the stairs.
  2. Reward good behaviour – In the UK, traffic police have found that flashing a smiley face at someone going below the speed limit, and a frowning face for going above the speed limit, has done more for traffic calming than issuing speeding fines.
  3. Let them eat cake (or the veggie option) – When the vegetarian option was made the default meal choice at a conference 80% ate this veggie option, vs. 17% when the default option was meat.
  4. Make it easy to fit into their lives – Cloth nappy laundering services that collect, launder and drop off reusable nappies, make adopting the new behaviour far more accessible to busy mums.
  5. Recognise the need to fit in – When an hotel tried to encourage guests to reuse their towels with the message “the majority of guests reuse their towels”, they saw a 29% increase in reuse. However the message “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” prompted a 41% increase. Interestingly both of these messages proved far more effective than asking guests to reuse towels as more environmentally friendly behaviour.

In a nutshell, what Behavioural Economics tells us is that there’s no moment of reckoning, or awakening, no one single great answer, but just lots of small tweaks that we can make to slowly move people in the right direction. And once enough of us are moving in the right direction, we’ll reach the tipping point necessary to turn sustainability mainstream. Perhaps then we’ll realise that living an unsustainable life is hardly desirable.

Y&R strategy director Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) has 17 years of experience in strategic planning, together with specific credentials in sustainability communications, social marketing, corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.

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