Futerra's 3 P's model of behavior change | Image credit: Futerra/Eight Sustainability Platform

Is It Best to Approach Behavior Change from Inside or Outside of Your Company?

Work on behavior change cannot be considered a new area; various institutions, especially governments, have long sought to influence individuals’ behavior in areas such as health, transport, family planning, etc. It is also not new for companies and brands to attempt to influence behaviors and needs through marketing. What is new is the use by companies of more complex methods for influencing individuals, especially consumers, for sustainable choices.

For Business to Consumer (B2C) companies, engaging with consumers could be considered essential to the consolidation of their models for production and consumption and for the survival and expansion of their businesses and brands. One key way to further their sustainability agendas is to find ways to influence their consumers to choose more sustainable products and services and adopt more conscious habits in their daily lives. This will help these companies lessen their impact and costs, as the majority of their environmental footprint is often caused by consumer use and post-use of their products and services. At the same time, working to influence behavior can also lead to closer ties between companies and their consumers, building trust, empathy and admiration. Companies can also find innovative solutions for their products and services by working with their consumers, who may be willing to help, through open innovation, crowdsourcing and offline interactions.

A group of leading companies is trying to implement consumer behavior change models globally and looking to take competitive advantages from this. As an example we can cite Unilever — one of the world’s largest consumer-goods companies, whose cleaning, personal hygiene and food products are used by two billion people each day. The company’s Sustainable Living Plan aims to double the size of the business while reducing its environmental impact by 50% within 10 years. Unilever, which launched this plan in 2010, smartly assumed it can not achieve this without deep engagement with its consumers.

It’s a challenge for those B2C companies, however, to develop a framework to influence consumers’ behavior, adapting it to the reality of different global markets, consumers and the company’s sector, products, business and sustainability strategies. Looking at the urgency for sustainable solutions to production and consumption patterns, the main challenge is to look for answers to these questions not just in the developed countries but especially in the BRICS and many other large and growing markets, such as Turkey, Peru, Indonesia, Chile, Malaysia, etc. Companies must understand the increasing influence of these countries on global production and consumption and develop instruments and strategies for influencing consumers, connected with their brand strategies and values proposition. This is key because of the specific characteristics of these markets and consumers and the impacts they can have (and have had) on the global production and consumption system, which from a social and environmental perspective is already saturated.

Some questions to go deeper on these approaches include how companies can build and structure instruments to influence consumers, with different levels of purchasing power and adherence to sustainable choices in these markets. Another question to ask is how these instruments can be used to influence the new middle classes of these countries, who are entering the market with a hunger for consumption. Companies cannot just deny their desires, but they cannot also just reproduce the western production and consumption model, which is unsustainable in a context of scarcity of natural resources and increasing raw material prices, among other pressing trends.

In attempting to answer these questions we see that this is not just about B2C companies’ relationships with their consumer stakeholders, but also (and mainly) a dilemma between companies’ growth goals and their influence on sustainable consumption in these markets.

To address these main challenges, we at Eight Sustainability Platform recently launched in Brazil the Emerging Economies Consumer Behavior Change Project, in partnership with Futerra Sustainability Communications, the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development (CEBDS), the Instituto Akatu and Sustainable Brands, sponsored by Banco Itaú and supported by Dow, Nestlé, Unilever, Invepar and PepsiCo.

Some of the initial learnings of the project make clear the need for a behavior change framework that is adapted to the different companies’ business drivers, integrating it with global and local sustainability strategies. It also requires the commitment and capabilities of different company areas, including not just sustainability and communication departments, but also marketing, R&D, brands and consumer research. Some ways of tackling this dilemma of growth versus sustainable consumption will be found, I believe, by companies working hard internally to understand how innovation and techniques for influencing consumers can be built into an effective approach as strategic purpose, recognizing and facing up to the problems of internal resistance, lack of knowledge and capabilities on the issue.

Taking Brazil as a case study, we understand that it is essential to design behavior change models and instruments that go far beyond the traditional instruments of corporate communications and advertising, and their traditional focus on the environment, i.e. the “save the planet approach,” which in general consumers do not understand, trust or respond to. For several years now, NGOs, governments, educational institutions and companies have sought to raise the awareness of individuals and engage them in the search for more “sustainable” attitudes and habits, including consumption, mainly through education and communications campaigns. However, research has shown that having information and being aware of the impact of a particular behavior is not in itself enough to change this behavior. A lot of progress has been made in raising awareness, but more needs to be done in terms of changing the practical responses and behavior of individuals.

Some different researches that we have analyzed in our white paper showed clearly this gap between intention, awareness and action: There has been an increase in the environmental awareness of Brazilians, but this has not been translated, at least at the same scale or pace, into sustainable consumption behaviors. We believe that a great part of this is also due to the fact that consumers are confused by these issues, mainly by the way organizations have been treating the topic, without connection with the different values and motivations of people, which are certainly far more complex than just “save the planet” perspectives.

One of our main initial learnings pertains to the need for companies to understand that individuals and behavior are not homogenous — people are guided in their decisions in different ways and respond differently to contexts and stimuli. Different values and social and psychological factors affect the behavior of both individuals and groups. Various research studies have tried to classify individuals into groups that share the same motivational factors. Companies already use their consumers’ different profiles in their marketing approaches; why should they treat people and their values differently if every consumer faces sustainable consumption choices in the same way? This is the heart of the matter.

Furthermore, the identification and segmentation of behaviors to be changed is the starting point for any behavior change strategy. It is important to know which behaviors are to be promoted and which ones discouraged. It is not possible to work on all behaviors at the same time, generically, and with the same approach for different groups of individuals; in our study, we started identifying target behaviors by sector, and this is just the beginning of the task at hand.

Despite knowing “why” and “what” we need to do in terms of consumer behavior change in emerging economies, our main challenge is work on “how” to achieve this. A number of models for changing behavior have been developed and adapted to the challenges facing companies and brands but they are all western-centric and must be adapted to Brazil or any other emerging market. These models highlight different aspects and represent different approaches to the complex challenge of influencing behavior, whether applied by governments, companies, NGOs or others. Our challenge is just beginning: We don’t have all the answers yet, but we know enough to see how much work we have in front of us.

In summary, we came to some early conclusions:

  • Creating engagement inside a company will help bridge the gap between the company’s discourse, reality and a business/sustainability strategy. This process can be helpful in assessing the amount of work needed to change attitudes, behavior and decision-making processes.
  • Concerning consumers, the work to be developed can be split into two main directions: The first is to understand how companies and their marketing, communications, research and other teams see and understand their consumers, their attitudes and their motivational values that guide their daily choices. The will help companies realize how the behavior change approach is seen by these team leaders and understand the main needs, barriers, opportunities and risks to adopting it.

In addition, to accomplish this complex challenge, these efforts need to be carried out in accordance with the realities of the company’s sector, the local market and the specific consumer behaviors that need to be understood and influenced.

From this series of data, a set of strategies can be drawn up to identify internal and external attitudes and the necessary behavior changes. This work will also clarify the main challenges faced by companies and brands in connecting their actions and strategies and achieving recognition for their value proposition.