How Marketing Can Provide Insights To Tackle Climate Change

How Marketing Can Provide Insights To Tackle Climate Change

In order to tackle climate change, we need a fundamental change in public behaviour and perceptions. Most of us are aware of the imagery of rising sea levels, extreme weather events and vanishing communities posed to us by leading scientists and policymakers. But why isn’t this enough to motivate the majority of us to make fundamental changes, and not just a switch from our single-use coffee cups to reusable ones? Only a small minority of Australians are willing to give up their daily conveniences for the sake of the planet, and only 45.9% of Australians believe climate change is an issue caused by humans (Figure 1).


Australian attitudes to climate change

Figure 1. Source: Australian attitudes to climate change: 2010-2014, CSIRO.

The problem of changing public behaviour and perceptions of climate change is not about data, but more so about communication. The current communication strategy for climate change is an “information deficit” strategy — where the public is seen as lacking appropriate information about the issue, and the provision of information is seen as sufficient in changing their behaviour. Insights from marketing and consumer behaviour theory can explain why this doesn’t work.


The Consumer Processing Model

To understand how to change consumer behaviour, we can look to the consumer processing model (CPM). The CPM follows five successive steps to understand the way consumers process information: exposure, attention, interpretation, memory and action, to make decisions.

Figure 2. Consumer processing model

The problem with the current communications strategy of climate change champions lies in steps three and four — interpretation and memory. Pushing frightening facts and broadcasting shocking imagery are sufficient for exposure and attention, but not enough for us to comprehend and instil change in our lives.


Interpreting the message (Step 3 of the CPM)

The CPM tells us, in order for a consumer to effectively comprehend and agree with information, the message must be tied with their values (step 3, interpretation). As such, this is where climate statistics go wrong — they are currently misaligned with the values of the population and espouse a universal message. However, let’s remember basic marketing theory:  in order for messages to resonate with consumers, they must be targeted to a specific, segmented audience. For climate change, the rules are the same. Scary statistics may resonate to some, but do not make sense to all.

For example, Pope Francis in 2014 posed climate change as a moral and ethical issue that will negatively impact the poorest three billion global citizens. Because of his status and framing, he was able to influence a constituent to consider their current perspectives on the issue. 35% of American Catholics stated that the Pope’s message changed their personal views on climate change (1). Meanwhile, American libertarian and environmentalist figure Debbie Dooley has found success in convincing fellow conservatives to adopt energy-saving behaviour, framing the message that powering one’s home as they please is an American liberty and right (2). Just as a brand would, positioning the message to suit a target audience has been effective in instilling change.


Remembering and learning the message

The final step before a change in behaviour is memory retention. In order for a consumer to remember the message and easily recall it, repeated links to concrete imagery and objects must be formed and insights from the CPM state that tangible imagery is easier to process than abstract imagery.

Images of homeless polar bears, cyclones in the tropics and vanishing communities are quite abstract and may pique interest or curiosity but is in reality,  far from our daily lives. It’s no surprise that the general public fail to retain these messages when making decisions. Clearly then, messages need to be tangible and tied to people’s lifestyles regarding climate change.

UCLA recently created an app that inspired consumers to reduce their energy use for the sake of the planet. These consumers were able to see on their screens which appliances were using the most energy, and were also able to see the direct impact of reducing usage of these appliances. Personalised emails were also sent, explaining how increased usage of energy generates pollutants that adversely affects child health. Combining with the concrete imagery on the app, this information can tied their daily habits to an issue they felt close, which saw an 8% reduction in energy usage (2).


Key takeaway

Just like traditional brand messages, if climate change messaging ensured resonance with public values and was framed in a way that promoted tangibility, we should see mass fundamental changes in behaviour. We may not always realise it, but the things we learn in the lecture theatre can have huge impacts in society. What we know as marketing students may not be obvious to those who study science. Understanding consumer behaviour is a powerful tool, and in this case, has the potential to resonate new messages within the general public and be used to improve the future of the planet.

  1. Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2015

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