Shaping Attitudes on Green

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by: David Wigder

An interview with Brett Jenks, CEO, Rare Conservation

Large mammals the like polar bear have a special place in our hearts and our imagination.  They make cute stuffed animals for our kids and capture our fascination when we see them at our zoos.  Today, however, the ice caps are melting and the polar bears are drowning because the ice is thinning.  It is a visible sign that our climate is changing for the worse, and makes for a macabre story.

One question to ask is whether some good can come out of this sad tale.  Will shocking images change people’s attitudes towards the environment?  Will the polar bear become a rally cry for action on global warming?  Can a drowning polar bear save us all?

For those not already receptive to a green message, attitude change is a prerequisite to influencing purchase behavior.  Changing attitudes – whether it be toward the environment or any another issue – can be a tall order, however.  As a result, most for-profit companies shy away for this challenge for a simple economic reason: it is more effective and efficient to target consumers already receptive to the message than to invest in consumers who aren’t. 

For those that do, including both for-profit and non-profit organizations, changing attitudes presents a formidable challenge.   

Academics have long pursued conceptual models that explain the process by which consumer attitudes are formed, shaped and influenced through external stimuli.  One such model was proposed by Petty and Cacioppo.  This Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) of persuasion provides conceptual framework based on “two routes of persuasive influence”: 

Central route of persuasion: While the central route is the most effective way to change and sustain attitudes over time, it requires a high degree of thought or consideration by the consumer for it to be effective.  This route requires consumers to digest the message, process the implications of the message and alter their attitude as a result.   

This route requires two conditions be met in order to successfully influencing attitudinal change.  First, a person must be motivated by the stimuli to change.  Said a different way, a person must have a “strong desire to process the message” because they can relate to it in a meaningful way.  Second, the person must have the cognitive ability to understand what the stimuli means in order to “accepted” it if viewed favorably, or “rejected” it otherwise.  Attitude changes achieved through a core route can be sustained by consumers because they have a vested interest to do so over time. 

Peripheral route of persuasion: The peripheral route stimulates attitude change when those being influenced have limited motivation and/or capability to engage with the message.  The peripheral route influences attitudes by leveraging the affinity for a cause or celebrity, for example.  People see Leonardo DiCaprio driving a Prius and change their driving habits to be more like him simply because they get a personal reward from doing so. 

Not surprisingly, attitudes formed through the central route are more enduring and more predictive of future behavior than those shaped through the peripheral route.  In contrast, attitude change through the peripheral route tends to be temporary in nature, requiring continual reinforcement by stimuli to maintain the change over time. 

Non-profits such as Rare Conservation (RC) and the Environmental Media Association (EMA) put persuasion models like ELM into practice in order to influence and shape consumer attitudes towards green.  What is interesting is how different their approaches to attitudinal change are between these environmental organizations, pursuing different routes of persuasion to effect change. 

Rare Conservation is an organization that conducts grassroots PRIDE campaigns in under developed nations to motivate local communities to conserve their resources.  RC focuses on changing attitudes primarily through a core route of persuasion, convincing locals that the long-term welfare of the community is tied to the sustainable use of its natural resources.  Locals tend to be receptive to the message given that their livelihood is tie to sustainable resource use.  As a result, RARE has been successful in driving change in these remote parts of the world.  

Critical to Rare’s success is the adoption and use of a local animal as a symbol of the campaign and its objectives.  The animal chosen tends to be held in high regard by the local community, and perhaps endangered by current unsustainable practices.  The animal serves not only as a rallying cry for action but also something that the community can take pride in as a symbol of a community’s heritage and what’s at stake while trying to preserve it. 

In contrast to RC, EMA pursues attitude change through association with celebrities (like DiCaprio driving the Prius).  By taking a peripheral route, EMA is leveraging star power to draw attention to its cause, while shaping consumer attitudes by associating a celebrity with a green brand.  “If Leonardo thinks being green it is cool, it must be so” goes the logic. 

In our media and advertising saturated world, celebrity endorsement can shape consumer attitudes, at least through the peripheral route of persuasion.  Yet, is this endorsement enough to sustain attitude change over time?  Based on the work by Petty and Cacioppo, it is unlikely that celebrity power alone will sustain changes in consumer attitudes over time, at least without continuous stimuli to remind consumers about this association. 

So, can RC’s PRIDE model be adapted by more industrialized markets like the US in order to sustain attitude change over time?  Can a polar bear – alive or drowned – be our PRIDE campaign symbol, our rallying cry for action on global warming or just a macabre reminder of its catastrophic consequences?   

I asked that question to Brett Jenks, CEO of Rare Conservation. We talked about customer attitudes toward green, Rare Conservation’s PRIDE campaigns that try to shape attitudes in remote areas of less developed countries, and the challenges of applying this model to a more developed world.  Here are his words. 

MG: How do you mobilize communities to conserve the local environment? 

BJ: We train local conservation leaders in some of the world’s remote and biologically rich places to use the power of communications and social marketing to move people to protect or sustainable use those resources.

This is an approach to conservation that says that if we are going to ensure the survival of some of the world’s most importance sources of fish and oxygen and timber, then we have to ensure that the people that inhabit those places are equally committed to that charge.  By doing so, we are building local constituencies for the environment all over the world. 

MG: You have been successful in doing just that in 40 countries.  How do you go about establishing a new program? 

BJ: We call it a PRIDE campaign.  This campaign is a locally managed, grassroots, social marketing program which begins with naming the problem and identifying who are actually using or destroying the resource and who are the influencers of change. 

We identify a threat to the environment using state of the art threat identification analysis.  Then, we use a participatory planning method that engages a lot of stakeholders in a community and walks them through that threat analysis to build a commitment to making a change and reduce the threat. 

The campaign manager identifies people who are actually creating this problem – who are the farmers who are lighting this prescribed burns that are growing out of control, who are the fisherman that are actually using the dynamite to blow up the reef that get a short term catch but destroying the long term sustainability of the reef.

Once you have identify those people, you have to figure out whether you can communicate with them directly [upfront] or at the end of the process which begins by making everyone else aware of the problem.  

[Program managers] come up with their theory for change.  For example, if we build public awareness and we can generate an attitude towards conservation, then we will be able to change the behavior of our target audience.

It’s the same way Coca-Cola would say, “Let’s move into a new country”.  Let’s make sure everybody is aware of the product, is interested in it and has the opportunity to try it. Then, maintain their allegiance to the brand over time.  We are doing the same thing with conservation.

MG:  It seems like you are taking two different approaches potentially. One is directly intervening with the individual causing the issue to begin with, and the other is to start higher up in the purchase funnel by first building awareness of the problem.  Is this the case? 

BJ: In a way we are doing both because we believe that there is no single threat to these resources.

MG: Are you actively working on climate change as an issue or are you primarily focused on conservations of lands and fisheries? 

BJ: That is what is interesting about it.  Potentially, 20% of global emissions come from deforestation, most of that is in tropical countries.  When we work on protection of a biosphere- a major tract of forest – [we] are really working on climate change.

MG: Is climate change the marketing message that would resonate in these more remote markets, or do you need to focus more in the here and now – the endangered forest and the fisheries of the local communities? 

BJ: It depends on the place and the people.  Human beings are complex and there are so many different ways to motivate people.  For example, the threat of loss is a very important motivator.  I just read a report that the given two propositions that are exactly the same: you can have $5 or remove all the risk of losing $5.  Humans will focus on what they are going to lose and try to avoid losing before they will focus on trying to gain. 

So the potential loss of the fishery to a local fisherman is a motivating force. The potential loss of clean water from the hillside is a motivating force.

But sometimes it is not enough.  And the thing that we assume is always going to be powerful is this sense of pride in homeland, in your particular place.

MG: How did Rare Conservation get started? 

BJ: This program got started in the late 1980’s when my vice president of programs, Paul Butlers, was working with the St. Lucia forestry department.  He was a young biologist who had moved from Great Britain to volunteer on this Caribbean island.  He realized that they were losing their national bird, the St. Lucian parrot.  They were down to only 100 left in the wild and the IDCN – the global association of non-profit environmental entities wrote a report that said that this species would not survive to the year 2000. 

And over the course of several years he used various marketing tactics that articulated this sense of pride. (He got the bird on the passport, on posters, billboards and bumper stickers.  There was a national song that every kid in every school knew.)  He ended up with sweeping legislations that reduced poaching of this national symbol.  Now there are 700 birds in the wild and it’s a viable population. 

MG: How does your model translate into more developed models? 

BJ: With some challenges.  We enjoy several advantages.  First, you get a huge benefit for your buck by investing your marketing dollars in the developing tropics.  Second, most of the places that we are working are very remote.  

Let me just tell you one little story about guys like you that I took to Peru a few months ago.   One of the lead creative teams at Arnold Advertising had volunteered to work with me. 

I took them down to get oriented and show them what we are doing with a PRIDE campaign in Peru.  We went to a very remote place called Oxapampa where there is a spectacled bear that lives in the incredibly rich ecosystem above these dairy farming communities. 

We are working in this region to help municipal leaders create new protected areas – to protect the watersheds and the biodiversity of the area.

Arnold flew in.  The first thing that they saw was a night at the town hall with the mayor and about 50 community leaders.  Our campaign manager presented the analysis that he had done about the market for conservation in the region.

So he says, “Here is where everyone gets their information. Tomorrow morning at 8am, 55% of the population of Oxapampa will be listening to this radio station.  And they will listen to it for the entire hour while everyone gets ready for school, have their coffee and head off to work or school.” 

He went on to describe what other information they get, who they trust, how many of them go to church.  In the room are the mayor and the three candidates to replace the mayor.  They are the only ones doing any kind of advertising, other than perhaps Coca-Cola.

As he is describing the market and what a campaign was going to look like, out the back of the room walks in this six-foot mascot of the spectacle bear. And he talks about how this bear was going to become the symbol of pride for Oxapampa.  And so this municipal meeting gets this electric air around it.  It may sound hokey but all of a sudden this thing comes into the room they now realize is their mascot, is the symbol of their region. 

Then a school group comes in and sings this new song – beautifully done, inspiring lyrics.  Parents are singing in a folkloric way the new anthem about their region.  In the back of the room, people can sign up to pledge their support for a protected area that will insure good water quality forever.

By the end of the meeting every one of the mayor candidates is taking their photo with the bear.  They are signing the pledge to create the protected area and they want us to send them the digital photos right away to use it as part of their platform.

It is literally that simple.

MG: It is sounds like in the US this type of message would get lost in the constant bombardment of advertising.  

BJ: And that’s the point.  So I said to Arnold, “Give me an image.  What would this look like if this were in the United States.”

MG: How about the images of a drowning polar bear as the mascot for a climate change campaign? 

BJ: I think the image would resonate with some.  But, it is not enough. 

In our case, it is the fact that we have religious leaders that are talking about protecting water every Sunday.  The radio disc jockeys are talking about it.  The dairy farmers are teaming up to petition the federal government because without water, their cows will not drink enough to produce milk.  It is about a whole movement; it is not about an ad campaign.  That is the difference.

MG: Sounds like these communities are so much more connected to the environment than we are.  Is that the case?  

BJ: Yes.  There is also greater cultural homogeneity.  So if you get the catholic priest [to promote the PRIDE message], you reach lots of people in the voice of and through the lens of those who are most influential.

MG: So, how would you approach a more developed market? 

BJ:  I do not believe that shock treatment works.  The drowning of the polar bear shocks you but does not make a link for people.  It does not lead people to a new kind of decision making.

The loss of the mega fauna – are negative images.  They do not lead you to a vision and aspiration.  They leave you with a big question and no sense of empowerment. 

Let’s find a more positive way to celebrate people making those first steps toward the purchase of hybrids, putting solar panels on their homes, making purchase decisions based on the lifecycle of the product and reputation and commitment of the company.  I think that is where we are going and will get there fairly quickly.

When people started taking dramatic measures during World War II, what were some of those images that highlighted that change?  Today, is it people buying compact fluorescents?  Or is it people thinking about putting laminates on their windows to reduce sunlight in the summer? 

MG: Are their images or icons that would resonate in the more crowded US media market? 

BJ: In our case [at RARE], we’ll have religious leaders – the icons of the local culture [endorse our message]. 

Who do people look up to in the US?  We certainly deify and vilify corporate CEOs.  I think a certain group of people [are influenced when they] see Wal-Mart going for certified seafood, and when Wal-Mart is talking about putting solar panels on top of everyone of its stores nationwide because it will save them money over time and therefore save their customers money. 

But, the stories that are most important may be those in a local newspaper about Bob and Jane who have decided to go green with their home – not because they are environmentalists – but because they are good flag saluting Americans who just want to do it better and make their contribution to America’s future.  

Sources: Petty and Cacioppo, “The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1986; Jackson, Tim, “Motivating Sustainable Consumption,” a report to the Sustainable Development Research Network, 2005

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