Designing for sustainable outcomes to close the Value-Action Gap

Brand innovators have a crucial role to play in making sustainable choices easy, meaningful and rewarding.
08 June 2023
Value action gap
Sarah King

Senior Partner, Sustainable Transformation Practice

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Dr Nicki

Head of Behavioural Science and Innovation Expertise, Kantar Insights, UK

Eileen Molinari

Client Director, Innovation – Insights Division, UK

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We think and hope that readers of this article already know that we face a serious ecological crisis in which every one of us, and every business too, will be required to change some entrenched behaviours.  

Public awareness and anxiety have accelerated – Kantar data shows us that concerns about the climate and environment increased by 50% after the middle months of 2022, a period in which we saw numerous ‘unprecedented’ and devastating weather events across the world, along with increasing evidence of the bio-diversity loss that has attended lifestyle changes over many years.  

Covid shone new light on social inequities too; these are also enmeshed in the environment conversation and much more visible than they were. No wonder we have numerous data points telling us that a great majority of people want to live a sustainable lifestyle - and yet, not enough of them do. 

This is the famous value-action gap.  The UN has said, Closing the Value-Action Gap is the Holy Grail in overcoming the barriers to sustainable consumption.”  Cynics point to the gap as evidence that all this data is virtue-signalling, that people don’t really care. We know that isn’t true; but being anxious about something is not the same as knowing how to address it, particularly when this is one issue among many that people have to contend with every day. There are numerous obstacles in their way;  that also means there are numerous opportunities to make things easier and that is one of our themes. 

The idea of ‘doing your bit’ has had currency in this area for a long time and there are certainly significant numbers of people who are already switched on to the subject of climate change and environment and who do what they think they can to live more sustainably. In our segmentation, these are the Actives and they number roughly a quarter of the population.  

There are all kinds of good things about being an Active, not least the sense of agency they have. Actives believe their actions can make a difference, they see this as part of their identity and importantly for brand owners, they believe brands have a role to play in issues of sustainability. They care about this and they invest in it – and it helps that they are a little more affluent than average. Often simply showing these people the way to be more sustainable is enough to make change happen.

The rest of the global population falls into different categories. 6 in 10 are what we call Believers or Considerers - people who know there is a problem and are open to improvement but who are less clear about it, less sure of their own role in this, more hesitant or more driven by what other people think and do.  

Until now, a great deal of marketing and communication has been directed at the Actives, the most committed people, the ones who are serious about this, who strive to live up to their sustainability aspirations and self-image; people with the ‘right’ attitudes, determining the ‘right’ behaviour. Of course, it would be ideal to live in a world where everyone understands the nature of the problem and acts accordingly. However, if we are going to accelerate change - as we must - we can’t rely on these people to carry the load or expect to convert everyone else to being an Active, as currently defined. We need to think about this differently. 

There is already real pre-disposition. Kantar research found that when faced with a choice between their favourite brand and a competitor, 89% of people will choose their favourite brand. No surprise there. However, when the alternative is clearly signposted as a sustainable alternative, their preference for the alternative brand rises from 11% of the time to 33%. This alone represents a potential tripling of the competitor’s sales. And that’s just on the basis of simple messaging. Unsurprisingly, if the sustainable alternative comes from a brand they prefer anyway, they are even more motivated to try it.  

This is all good but it’s not enough to close the gap. Perhaps we don’t need everyone to become an Active overnight, but to facilitate change for the great majority who, all things being equal, would make better choices, but who are impeded in some way by a lack of conviction or opportunity. If we focus on sustainable outcomes for the many, and not just sustainable inputs for the vanguard, perhaps we can scale this more quickly.  

Getting to more sustainable outcomes 

What does that mean? It means getting more people to behave in more sustainable ways and to make more sustainable purchases when they choose their brands because we made that the obvious choice. It means influencing choices rather than always starting with mindsets and driving awareness of issues. 

It means embracing more than one model of change – not just the classic comms model of attitudes driving behaviour but also recognising that behaviour can drive attitude. For example, Richard Shotton suggests in his book, the Illusion of Choice, that to encourage major behaviour change, you start with a small change in behaviour rather than attitude. Small enough to take minimal effort but large enough to influence the motivations of the individual and ultimately their beliefs. 

To get to more sustainable outcomes let’s examine the actions brands must take to move beyond awareness.  

The first action is to make it easy for people to make more sustainable choices. Our Sustainability Sector Index data 2022 shows that 18% of people report that the effort and research involved in making the right choice is a significant friction to being more sustainable. Meeting people where they are is a good first step: they want the brands they buy to put the effort in and they want the most sustainable choices to be easily available to them. Providing cues as to what is the most sustainable choice (for example, B Corp status) is an ‘easy’ win to show that a brand is a more sustainable option.  

However, to really shift the dial and move beyond influencing just those highly engaged Actives, let’s consider those who want to be sustainable but often lack the motivation to turn that desire into action - the Believers and Considers. We need to make it meaningful for them. Both groups cite personal relevance as a strong friction to being sustainable (9% giving ‘I don’t feel personally motivated enough’ as a reason). Brands need to motivate and help people find meaning in more sustainable choices. They need to connect with what matters to these people and in the case of Believers, what enables them to show others the sustainable choices they are making.  

The challenge for Considers is that they often feel they can’t make a difference. Kantar’s Who Cares Who Does and Sustainability Sector Index reports demonstrate that they are able to do the basics such as recycling but often can’t find the motivation to engage in more sustainable behaviours, especially if they must compromise on something (10% citing a key challenge to being more sustainable as 'It requires a compromise on quality e.g. on my experience’).  

Brands should approach the development of more sustainable products and services knowing that consumers still demand the same levels of taste and efficacy. What is interesting is that our least engaged group of individuals, the Dismissers, also cite lack of compromise as a strong motivator for them when making any sustainable choice (9%, SSI 2022). Sustainability alone is not a sufficient motivator for anyone except the most engaged. Analysis of Kantar BrandZ data confirms this – reminding us that brands still need to perform on the fundamentals in order to succeed  in sustainability. 

The third action brands can take is to offer sustainability as a gift, a reward that goes alongside principal benefits and enhances them. The desire for a better experience from sustainable products and services can hinder behaviour change but can also be a strong motivator to support more sustainable outcomes (19% mentioned they would be more sustainable ‘If I could get an even better experience’, SSI 2022). Whilst this might seem obvious, it’s often the case that brands feel the need to talk sustainability first. Each year Kantar celebrates the top ten new products that drive both sales and incrementality for their brands. In 2022, of those that made the top 10, half were products which provided sustainability as a gift. Take for example Cadburys Caramilk, which focussed on giving consumers a new taste experience by blending caramel with chocolate whilst giving the gift of 100% sustainably sourced Cocoa. Inch’s cider, another example, of providing a better taste experience from apples sourced within a 40-mile radius of their mill. Both brands celebrated good outcomes for their brands and the planet.  

Designing for success 

How does a brand turn this theory into action? What does it look like in practice?  

Take, for example, the brand the Vegetarian Butcher. A meat-free product designed to make moving to a vegan lifestyle easy, meaningful and rewarding. With engaging product names such as Little Willies and Happy Go Clucky, and great tasting products offering no compromise on sizzle, texture and taste, it’s no wonder this brand was acquired by Unilever.  

Fever-Tree is another brand which has always focused on a superior experience for its users and knows that sustainability is an important part of that story. As Jeremy Kanter, Fever-Tree’s Chief Marketing Officer says, ‘What drives us is quality. We focus on naturally sourced ingredients and there is no compromise when it comes to finding the highest quality ingredients for our products – and sustainability can improve quality. Whenever possible, we seek out our end producers, meet them, see the quality of their produce and frequently see that the better run farms have better sustainability practices. There’s often a social aspect to those relationships, where a supplier community committed to us and they have benefitted and flourished alongside us. Overall, we see sustainable practice as a competitive advantage but the link with our suppliers is always through quality'.

The important point here is that these brands achieved more sustainable outcomes by designing for success. To do this, brands need to think differently.  Here are our top five tips for designing for success.  

  1. Think beyond the Actives. They make up 29% of the global population – a significant minority, but there are many others willing to change who need to be personally motivated and rewarded for engaging in more sustainable outcomes.  
  2. Use behavioural science inspired research approaches to identify the limiting beliefs that hold people back when it comes to more sustainable outcomes. We often see in our research, that faulty beliefs and expectations are the strongest barriers to behaviour change. Seek out these beliefs early and design with them in mind. One example involved the design of a product using the waste materials from the Cacao plant in a new snack; the team recognised early that people had certain expectations around a chocolate taste and texture so with that knowledge could design a product to delight rather than be met with limiting expectations. Use techniques like forensic interviewing, honesty priming and search and social to uncover these implicit beliefs. 
  3. Focus on removing the frictions through the design of your product; chose to provide either additional benefits or a better or different experience and don’t make the mistake of thinking that people will sacrifice the fundamental benefits the product needs to deliver.  

  4. Understand the fuels that will unlock the value-action gap. The Believers, Considerers and Dismissers all have a value-action gap that can be reduced by products that speak directly to their specific motivations. Believers, who are more socially oriented, are more likely to change behaviour through social norms because they are externally validated. For the Considerers and Dismissers focus on sustainability as a gift. 

  5. Think behavioural design. As Richard Shotton puts it, “why wouldn’t you want to learn from 130 years of experimentation into what makes for effective behaviour change.” These scientists have uncovered many ways to influence the context of choice to ‘nudge’ people towards the right behaviour. Reframing the problem, linking it to existing behaviours and  using techniques like getting people to invest a little to engage them (the foot in the door technique) are all ways to make it easy, meaningful and rewarding to get to more sustainable outcomes. 

Hopefully by taking these actions brands will not only benefit people and planet but will enjoy more returns for their efforts and energies in designing for success. What will you do differently today?  

To learn more about get in contact with our sustainability experts and read more on how your brand can play its part in creating a waste-free world, providing compelling evidence on how brands can meet consumer demands for a life with less waste in the Designing for a waste free future report. 

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