A bag with Think Green written on it

Friends of the Earth: Appealing to people's social identity can help persuade them to buy sustainable products

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And while many firms want to be seen combating global warming, they cannot do it alone.

Designing a greener product is one thing, but that effort will be wasted if nobody buys it. Companies need customers to work with them to achieve their sustainability goals.

Securing that co-operation isn’t easy. One approach is educating customers, explaining how a product lowers carbon emissions or benefits workers in the supply chain.

Sometimes that works. Often it doesn’t. Habits are hard to change and consumers often need more encouragement.

There are many ways to try to change customer behaviour. Firms can limit choice or adjust prices; make emotional appeals; or highlight supplementary benefits, such as saving time.

Another approach is to appeal to a customer’s social identity. This is a powerful option, but is often poorly understood even among experienced marketers.

The key is recognising the social goals people have based on the groups they belong or aspire to. People will work hard to retain their status and make the group look good to others.

However, social identity is not constant. The same individual may view themselves as a parent, music-lover, traveller, or business executive in different contexts.

The trick is to establish which identity is the most salient and work on that. Used responsibly, this can help customers to do the right thing.

Three organisations I have been working with demonstrate different ways of doing this.


1 We’re all in this together

California start-up Enervee, which sells home appliances and electronics online, is one company that successfully focuses on social identity.

Rather than simply offering every conceivable fridge or TV it tries to nudge consumers towards energy efficient items. All products are given a ‘green’ score out of 100, highlighting how much money buyers can save on their electricity bills.

The website tailors the way it presents other information to home in on the benefits that will appeal to different people. Someone browsing for a television might be told that if everyone in the US who bought a TV opted for a particular model with a high green score it would save enough energy to power New York City for an entire year.

Appealing to a consumer’s identity as an American suggests we’re all in this together and if everyone acted responsibly we would achieve something to be proud of.

Identifying a national group can work better than appealing to our status as humans on a shared planet. Generally, the smaller and more specific the group the more motivated we are.

2  Good things in smaller packages

Consumer goods giant Unilever has a fabric conditioner called Comfort One Rinse that requires less water – a useful feature in water-stressed parts of the world. It can also save time.

Despite positive feedback from early trials, the company found the conditioner met resistance in parts of Asia.

Further research identified that in some rural areas women gathered to wash their household laundry using a communal water supply.

The social norms of that group dictated that they use the same amount of water and time washing clothes as everyone else. Any less might make them look like a poor homemaker.

Extoling the benefits of saving water was of little use here. Instead Unilever asked high-status homemakers to tell the women about how they used the time they saved to look after their families in other ways, appealing to their social role as being in charge of the family house.


3 Invent your own group

If it’s hard to identify a relevant social identity the alternative is to create one.

Multi-media platform Shujaaz was launched in Kenya in 2009 to improve the lives of young locals by creating a social identity imbued with the positive attributes they wanted to encourage.

This centred on a monthly comic about a teenage DJ who set up a pirate radio station. Written in the local slang, ‘Sheng’, the comic now reaches seven million people, is supported by TV and radio shows, and has a vibrant social media presence.

Shujaaz (which means ‘heroes’ in Sheng) has promoted safe sex and vaccination, and encouraged young entrepreneurs to launch businesses, through the choices made by characters in the comic.

The positive impact is demonstrated by the fact that readers are far more likely than non-readers to use contraception and engage in family planning.

As these examples show, tapping into a social identity is not always straightforward. But by homing in on the most relevant social group, it can be a powerful motivational tool.

Further reading:

Rowe, Z. O., Wilson, H. N., Dimitriu, R., Charnley, F. J. and Lastrucci, G. 2019. Pride in my past: influencing sustainable choices through behavioral recall. Psychology & Marketing, 36, 4, 276-286.


Hugh Wilson is Professor of Marketing and lectures on Creating Sustainable Organisations on the Executive MBA and Global Online MBA, He also teaches Succeeding in a Sustainable Future on the MSc Marketing & Strategy and the Principles of Marketing on the Undergraduate programme.

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