The Business of Behavior Change: Why Brands Are Motivating Action Through Social Marketing

May 15, 2017  |  By Stacey Smith  |  

With Earth Day 2017 quickly fading in the rearview mirror, I’m reminded of the challenge we face every other day of the year: maintaining high awareness and action on sustainability issues. Government agencies and nonprofits have traditionally shouldered the greatest responsibility for year-round efforts aimed at influencing behaviors that benefit individuals and society. But a growing number of forward-thinking businesses and brands are beginning to invest in the kind of genuine behavior change programs known as “social marketing” – or, when done by a corporation, “corporate social marketing.”

Take, for example, Levi Strauss & Co.’s Water<Less™ initiative. It began with the development of an innovative finishing technique that decreases the water required to produce a pair of jeans by up to 96 percent. But Water<Less™ now extends to an education

Water Less

So why are more for-profit corporations following Levi’s example and investing in social marketing? We have identified the following five reasons.

1. To Increase Sales

Social marketing has been shown to increase sales. For example, in 2015 Nivea UKlaunched a campaign called “Take Care Out There,” which was based on a powerful short film about how UV rays damage your skin – and how sunscreen can protect you. This award-winning campaign communicated the importance and effectiveness of sunscreen in a new and different way (showing what your skin looks like in ultraviolet light with and without sunblock) and was effective in raising brand awareness and driving sales for Nivea Sun.

2. To Decrease Costs

Social marketing can also decrease operating costs while simultaneously benefitting society and the environment. One notable example is Virgin Atlantic, whose founder, Richard Branson, is a major champion of climate change action. Virgin teamed up with economists to try to “nudge” the company’s pilots to use less fuel and increase carbon efficiency using a variety of behavioral interventions. The study consisted of sending Virgin’s pilots communications about saving fuel, including actions they could take before take-off, in the air, and upon arrival to reduce fuel consumption, and giving them feedback on their performance. The results were dramatic: across 40,000 flights, Virgin achieved a savings of $4.4 million of fuel and a reduction of 21,000 tons of carbon emissions.

3. To Improve Employee Wellbeing and Engagement

It’s no secret that fostering a happy, healthy workforce is good business. Motivated by the prospect of improving employee engagement, boosting financial performance and reducing health care costs, companies are increasingly implementing behavior-based employee wellness programs, making them “practically universal in corporate America,” as Fortune recently noted. Fitbit, for example, not only has its own program, its Fitbit Wellness division helps other companies — including Target, IBM and Kimberly-Clark — create engaging programs using their fitness trackers as motivators in rewards-driven competitions. The maker of ECOS™ green cleaning products gives $1,000 to every employee that reduces his/her commute and carbon footprint by moving closer to the office — where they can also pick fruits and veggies from the onsite organic garden. Practicing what we preach, our Civilian team gets active together for weekly “Fitness Fridays” — lunchtime group classes such as cross-fit and yoga — and can earn a free gym membership if they go four or more times a month.

4. To Demonstrate Shared Leadership for Greater Impact

Companies can amplify their impact on corporate responsibility and sustainability by partnering with each other to engage and educate audiences. A coalition of brands who want their packaging to be recycled, including P&G, Target and Nestlé, created the How2Recycle labeling system in 2012 to clearly communicate recycling instructions to the public. Our work with PaintCare, an initiative sponsored by the paint industry, is helping engage consumers and increase paint recycling rates in California and Colorado. And brands including Nordstrom, Samsung and Timberland participate in BSR’s HERproject, which improves health behaviors among women working in the apparel and other industries’ global supply chains – reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity. While such collaborative campaigns may get less attention than splashy marketing from solo brands, it’s these sustained and strategic efforts by multiple industry players that have proved effective in changing behavior for the better over time.

5. To Deliver on Purpose-Driven Commitments

In 2014, CVS became the first national pharmacy chain to stop selling tobacco products in all of its stores because it conflicted with the company’s purpose of helping people on their path to better health – a bold and risky move that wound up being widely celebrated. In 2016, the company launched a five-year, $50-million initiative called Be The First to extend its commitment to helping people lead tobacco-free lives and to move towards the first tobacco-free generation. Meanwhile, Oakland, Calif.-based startup Back to the Roots is working to reconnect families to the source of their food with organic mushroom growing kits, a curriculum that teaches gardening and nutrition to kids, and a line of wholesome cereals now available in NYC schools. Both brands are showing that delivering on your purpose in a big way goes beyond announcements and business practices to creating real behavior change among customers and the wider community.

Whether you’re motivated by some or all of these reasons to invest in social marketing, the growing movement of brands getting behind this long-game strategy shows it’s not only an effective way to advance social and environmental impact – it’s simply good business.

This article also appears on Sustainable Brands

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