Big Business Needs to Help Consumers Change Their Behaviour

10/04/2013 14:44 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 10:12 BST

"If we can't get the consumer involved, we will always be behind the curve." Those were the words of M&S chief executive Marc Bolland when he launched the retailer's Plan A stakeholder consultation on creating a sustainable business.

The logic is compelling: it's a natural part of the journey to long-term success. Here are three steps to realising the need for action on consumer behaviour:

1) Look ahead 10, 20 or 30 years and identify the trends that would favour a strong future operating environment. This forces organisations to look externally and identify the range of global issues that could prevent future success

2) Define a preferred future. This usually leads to identifying transformational programmes including projects that address the global issues found in step one e.g. energy and water consumption. At this point, the company is probably looking through what Marc Bolland describes as the "industry lens" and can begin to make the changes required within the business and through the supply chain

3) Companies then realise the importance of consumer behaviour change, and the compelling case for change at scale comes into focus. For example, at Unilever the fact that consumer use of their products accounts for 68% of the company's greenhouse gas emissions is a strong reason for action.

So how can consumers be persuaded to act? The first option is to explore generic insight into behaviour change. Unilever, for example, has defined five levers for sustainable living or tips to persuade consumers to act. Make it: understood; easy to act; desirable; rewarding; and habitual.

This approach benefits from insight into behavioural change including practical 'nudges' such as social proof (if other people like me are doing it, it's increasingly likely that I will), choice editing (have people opt out rather than opt in), framing (the suggestion is based on a knowledge of what will motivate them to act) and prompts (reminders at the point of relevance).

Examples include recycling icons on Coke cans so it is easy to check if something can be recycled (prompt), editing out harmful ingredients from foods (choice editing), the introduction of "me-size" ready-made food portions (prompt), telling people in hotel rooms the percentage of people who have re-used their towel (social proof, framing) or providing apps that make sustainable behaviours fun.

But nudges are not enough. Imagine you're from a private sector utility wanting to reduce sewer blockages. Using the "industry lens" I focus on engineering solutions. Using the "consumer lens" for the first time I want to change customer behaviour and stop people putting the wrong stuff down sinks and loos.

Traditional methods have always been ineffective even if they use behavioural insight. I don't just want to increase generic awareness of an issue and make it easy to act. I want to have a measurable outcome - fewer blockages. To achieve that I need a much deeper understanding of what material streams are causing blockages, what customer segments are putting these things down sinks and loos and a deep understanding of what would persuade people to act. That's what Anglian Water did with its Keep It Clear programme and within weeks achieved a measurable reduction in blockages.

The difference is this. Nudges are usually informed tactics. To achieve real change at scale with a very high probability of success, you need to see customer behaviour change as a discipline and begin using the same professional standards as traditional marketing - except you are marketing behaviours, not products. You change one behaviour one audience at a time. This discipline is called social marketing and it takes nudge tactics into the world of customer behaviour change strategies that can persuade millions.

It's a relatively new discipline and it works beyond the obvious behaviours. Sure, it can be used to help customers recycle more, save energy, save water, use bags for life or eat well. The same approach can also be used to grow existing markets or create new markets. For example, banks could use it to persuade the 50% of people not currently saving for their long-term future to do so, which helps address a major social issue and grow their markets at the same time.

Leaders are already using this approach as a discipline. In the next few years sustainable business plans will feel more like long-term marketing plans. Whatever it's called - social marketing, customer behaviour change or sustainable behaviour change - it's the next big thing.