Selling Sustainability

What do the Toyota Prius, Sunkist orange juice, and Pespondent toothpaste have in common? They were initially developed and marketed for a market that did not yet exist. The Toyota Prius predates the idea of a “hybrid vehicle” – so why would cautious drivers choose it over a less expensive model? When Sunkist introduced its brand of orange juice, juicing oranges was a novel concept. Before World War II, oral hygiene was an afterthought – it was only upon the return of American GIs that toothpaste became a mass market product.

In all three of these cases, individual companies identified a useful product before their consumers knew they needed it. But then how did they sell it? In each case, the company in question actively sought to change customer perceptions and behavior in order to take their product from an oddity to a “must-have.” Marketers took the somewhat counter-intuitive step of not selling a product, but a set of behaviors that would lead people to buy the product. Whether it was brushing your teeth, drinking your OJ, or buying a hybrid car, these companies sold the idea that a particular behavior was essential to a happy life – then positioned themselves as the sole provider of the product that enabled that behavior.

These examples provide valuable lessons for those trying to create a more sustainable future. In the long run, sustainability requires individuals to change their behavior en masse – whether that means buying more fuel-efficient cars, eating locally grown food, or increasing recycling rates. People aren’t going to change these simple day-to-day behaviors just because someone asks; what is needed is a concerted effort to sell sustainability, much the way Sunkist sold drinking orange juice rather than simply Sunkist oranges.

At its core, traditional marketing is a concerted effort to convince consumers to change their behavior in a simple manner: buy our brand over the other brands. When talking about selling something more complicated, such as sustainability, the effort becomes much more difficult. When trying to convince an individual to behave in a more sustainable manner, you’re not just convincing them to buy one brand over another – you’re asking them to change their lifestyle.

Luckily, there are already organizations working on just this problem. Social marketing is a method that involves the use of commercial marketing techniques to achieve specific behavioral changes within a target customer base, with an eye on the social good. The concept is not new, but was not been articulated until1951, when G.D. Wiebe asked “Why can’t you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you sell soap?” Wiebe further proposed that the better non-profits and socially-focused organizations employed commercial marketing techniques, the more successful they would be at achieving their missions.

Social Marketing came into its own in 1971, when marketing mavens Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman coined the term to describe exactly the approach to marketing social change that Wiebe had described. By this time, however, non-profits and governmental agencies had already been using the tenants of social marketing to target such social issues as contraceptive use in developing countries and smoking in the US. Over the next several decades, social marketing remained under the purview of NGOs and governmental agencies, and was perceived as having few applications in the commercial world.

That began to change by the late 1990s, however, as companies began to ramp up their sales of environmentally friendly products and corporate social responsibility became a central issue to corporate boards. Today companies are increasingly applying the methods of social marketing to boost their own sales by creating socially beneficial changes in consumer behavior. But what is their motivation? Why spend money convincing consumers to do anything besides buy your product?

Companies typically have two reasons for engaging in social marketing; the first is market position. Just as in the Toyota Prius or Sunkist orange juice examples above, companies convince consumers to change their behavior in order to change their spending habits – funneling their dollars into a product category in which the company is the dominant or only player. In this way Toyota came to dominate the hybrid vehicle market (“protect the planet, buy our car!”), and Pepsodent cam to command the early toothpaste market (“protect your teeth by brushing with our product!”). Both sold the societal and environmental benefit of their products, rather than the products themselves, to convince consumers to open their wallets.

The other driver behind social marketing campaigns is to create new streams of revenue through changed behavior and a kind of unplanned/impulse spending effect. For example, Best Buy created its electronics recycling program in 2009, intending it as a high-profile CSR effort subsidized by a $10 recycling fee. By November of 2011, Best Buy had dropped the fee, recycled roughly 85 million pounds of electronic waste, and began turning a small profit both from recycled materials and impulse purchases customers made as they dropped off their electronics.

In the case of Toyota, Sunkist, Best Buy, and Pepsodent, each company in question succeeded in their social marketing efforts because it identified and exploited overlaps between sustainable behaviors, market opportunities, and consumer desires. In these cases, everybody wins – consumers get a new product or service, the company makes money, and the environment is improved as a result. It is these intersections, if properly identified and marketed, that will have to play a crucial role in our transition to a more sustainable economy. Consumer choice is a powerful driver in this global economy, and the synergy between a brand or service and consumers’ aspirations for a better or more sustainable life has proven to carry weight. As social marketing continues to expand its reach into the corporate space, more and more of these synergies are likely to be identified and capitalized upon, but it will take a concerted effort to expand efforts to “sell sustainability” at the magnitude required to truly make an impact.