Sustainable Behaviour: How To Turn Lawn Lovers into Grasscyclers

The marketing challenge: convince Calgarians to leave their grass cuttings on the lawn and not bag them. The winning appeal: what are your neighbours doing?

The essentials

To get people to adopt Earth-friendly behaviour, it is best to match the appeal to either self interest or community interest. If the appeal is aimed at people who are thinking of their self interest, focus on self benefits or on what other community members are doing. If it’s aimed at people as group members, focus on community norms or on what they should do, reported Katherine White, Associate Professor in the Marketing Division at Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia at a Queen's School of Business research conference. 

It’s a perennial challenge: how to get people to adopt an unfamiliar Earth-friendly behaviour that goes against ingrained habits or community attitudes.  

If you ask marketers, they’ll suggest employing one of two types of appeals. The first is to focus on the benefits to the individual: turn down the thermometer to save on your energy bill. The second is to focus on the prevailing norms or the social implications of the new behaviour: this is what other people in your neighbourhood are doing or this is what you should be doing to save the planet.

People respond differently to these two appeals and norms, so the trick is to carefully match the message to the goals of the appeal, according to Kate White, Associate Professor in the Marketing Division at Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia. 

White tested the effectiveness of different appeals in a real-world research project involving grasscycling in Calgary. She outlined the results and implications at Queen's School of Business’s Moral and Ethical Issues in Consumer Marketing conference, held at Goodes Hall in May 2012.

Testing different appeals

City of Calgary officials have been anxious to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill. The city experiences two spikes in the volume of garbage: in January right after Christmas and during the summer, with grass cuttings and leaves. In the past, officials have tried to encourage residents to leave grass cuttings on their lawns to decompose rather than raking them up and placing them in the garbage. But their efforts failed, largely because of Calgary’s “lawn culture.” 

“In Calgary, community norms say that other neighbours are keeping their lawn nice, so there’s an implicit expectation that you’ll do it too,” said White. “There’s the fear of being a bad neighbour.“ 

In their experiment, White and colleagues designed a series of marketing flyers or “door hangers” to test out the response to three different appeals. One appeal was based on personal benefits (“grasscycling saves time and reduces your water bill”). The other two were based on social implications: the “descriptive” norm (“your neighbours are grasscycling”); and the “injunctive” norm (“your neighbours want you to grasscycle”). To get people to think either as individuals or as part of a group, pronouns such as “you” and “your” or “our” and “we” were used within the text. 

To measure how effective the various appeals were in changing behaviour, members of White’s research team followed city garbage collectors for three weeks as they made their rounds. At each pick-up, the garbage collector signaled to the researchers whether or not there were grass cuttings in the bags. “Garbage collectors are really adept at knowing what’s in garbage bags,” said White.

The results confirmed her hunch. “When the individual self is activated, consumers will exhibit particularly positive sustainable behaviour in response to the benefit appeals,” White said. Benefit appeals do not work so well when people are thinking as part of a group. “When the collective self is activated, consumers will exhibit particularly positive sustainable intentions and behaviors in response to appeals that highlight either injunctive or descriptive norms.”

Finer points of norms

White also found that all norms are not created equal. When people are thinking as individuals rather than as parts of a group, messaging based on the descriptive norm, which merely describes what others in the community are doing, can be effective. But messaging based on the injunctive norm — you should do this — is bound to fall on deaf ears because it can be perceived as threatening to individual autonomy.

“The take away message is that if people are thinking at the individual level, it works best to focus on self benefits or what other people are doing,” said White. “When you’re thinking of yourself as a group member, we find the two type of norms work really well to get people to change their behaviour but focussing on benefits to the self doesn’t work as well under those conditions.”

If the messaging has to be injunctive, marketers would be wise to include empowerment in their message in order to mitigate the possible negative effects: “it’s your choice” or “you have the power to choose.” 

White was particularly gratified by the results, given that the study was based on an an actual marketing campaign. “The fact that we got some lift is kind of exciting,” said White. “It works in a real-world context.” 

Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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