The Personal Stake in Sustainability

Business leaders and consumers alike are regularly faced with a barrage of messages persuading them to operate more sustainably—whether it’s to improve the bottom line, cut down on the cost of living, or do better by our planet. While there are convincing arguments to be made around all of the aforementioned goals, there’s only one argument that marketers really need to win in order to get consumers to buy in to sustainability:

“What’s in it for me?”

The key to getting people to be more eco-friendly is showing them how it’s more MEco-friendly. A recent McKinsey on Society post, The Socially Conscious Consumer, sums it up perfectly:

“It makes little sense to spend the extra money and effort supporting causes that can’t possibly benefit us directly. If we are perfectly selfish, rational beings, why should we purchase carbon credits or recycled paper for twice the price and often twice the hassle for benefits that we will never personally enjoy?”

Thankfully, the article goes on to say that as humans, we are in fact NOT rational robots, and we DO have the ability to do things for reasons other than personal gain—but we often struggle to align our behaviors with our intentions (like that diet you swore you’d go on before taking a cruise, or that gym membership you signed up for but have yet to use).

As an account planner who has been focusing on the voice of customer in our specialty group EMA Energy + Sustainability for the past few years, and a fitness instructor with 10 years of training and coaching under my belt, I’m actually uniquely qualified to provide some insight on people from both an energy-efficiency AND exercise perspective—and ,it turns out, the motivations for saving kWhs and burning KCals are not that different: You’ve got to make it personal.

“MEco-friendly” is about translating information and logic into content that consumers can immediately absorb in a way that’s uniquely meaningful to them. Take the diet and exercise example. Telling a bride-to-be that lowering her body fat percentage by 1% before the big day is an accurate way to describe the benefits of eating better and hitting the treadmill, but it lacks the emotional appeal to really push her into action. Telling a bride-to-be that she’s going to drop two dress sizes and lose four inches around her waist is getting closer to the kind of benefit that might get her on a spin bike at 6:00AM and swear off bagels for the next year—but telling a bride-to-be that she will be a supermodel knockout in her perfect dress on the big day is where it’s REALLY at. We’ve taken the information and turned it into something she can easily imagine benefiting her (and is therefore more likely to invest in). As stated in The Socially Conscious Consumer, “We rarely spring into action when we are presented with statistics or lectured on the devastating effects of X or Y, but we often do act when confronted with vivid examples of misery (take, for example, a drowning polar bear).”

Or being too big to fit into your wedding gown.

In terms of sustainability, this means marketers need to focus on strategies to talk about energy efficiency and its benefits in ways that evoke consumer emotion in the context of personal gain. For example, would giving a mid-level manager the right talking points to present a solid case for sustainability to his superiors position him as a proactive, solutions-oriented employee who should be considered for a greater leadership role within his company? That’s more likely to move him to action than simply telling him a new HVAC system improves efficiency and saves money.

Would talking to a mom about solar panels on her home be more effective if we told her that after five years her family would save so much money in energy costs they could fly for free to Disney World? It’s a lot easier (and more fun) to imagine your children laughing on Splash Mountain than it is to picture what a future utility bill might look like after installing a solar power system.