Targeting sustainability – the revival of ‘virtues’ in research and results

Jens Lönneker, rheingold salon

By Nicole Hanisch and Jens Lönneker (rheingold Institute for Qualitative Market and Media Research)

The paper is based on a multiclient qual study with 40 indepth interviews and 2 focus groups and quant follow up with 1000 respondents, including a desk research of 20 earlier studies.

Sustainability is the buzzword of the decade. Companies feel scrutinised for ‘ethical behaviour’ and feel compelled to act.

General topics – like sustainability – are issues to address for every marketing plan, thus the study is designed as a multi client study which allows a most cost effective way of elaboration a specific topic of general interest. All participants can share general parts of the study and discuss them at a round table. Product and brand specific parts which they like to get exclusively are presented only the specific company.

This paper illustrates how the sustainability trend marks a revival of virtues in research and results.

1. Introduction

Research briefs are choc-full of requirements and demands for sustainable communication. Companies feel scrutinised for ‘ethical behaviour’ and are challenged to act. Sustainability is a key issue of our time. Due to Fukushima, 90% of Italians recently voted against nuclear energy! Institutions like Foodwatch, Greenpeace, and Ökotest are on the rise, giving consumers a sense of new control. Even the companies themselves have started guaranteeing consumes more control and transparency over product quality.

Sustainability is a buzzword for companies, but it is also the first sign of a new culture. Western cultures are ‘ego’ cultures, in which greed and avarice (people are looking for more and cheaper products) – formerly deadly sins – are considered cool and clever. Marketing itself is only seen as successful if it manages to increase sales/margins and capture the market.

Increasingly, however, consumers are feeling that greed and the constant search for egoistical margins and performance are showing the flipsides of ‘ego’ culture: food scandals, natural disasters like Fukushima, climate change, etc. – evoked by human nature and a profit orientation. These are just a few of many issues where we feel the planet has been tampered with too much and is starting to turn the tables on us!

Coupled with this, there is a longing for a new culture of decency. Consumers are searching for new ethics and an opportunity to be ‘just good’.

As these aspects are relevant for numerous industries, a focus on new communication skills for a new era of sustainability is of even greater interest.

The topics of the study include:

1.    An understanding of sustainability from consumers’ and marketing’s
perspective; similarities, differences and opportunities of aligning the two    perspectives.
2.    Guidelines for communication, based on the psychology of sustainability: how to overcome the cynical dilemma of futility, exploring signals and aesthetics of
3.    Communication examples are explored.

The study and the paper aim to give new general insights for different industries that want to approach sustainability in their marketing. The pressure to achieve sustainability is different in different product categories and companies.
Another major aim was to provide a value-for-money proposition to a number of clients with the help of a special multi-client study design – generating general insights for multiple clients from different industries and thus providing ‘one for all and all for one’.

2. Setup of the study

2.1. Research Approach:

Aware of the fact that sustainability is a major issue of general interest which is not easy to define, we chose the following study setup, which enables inclusion of different perspectives on sustainability:
•    consumer and marketing perspective
•    from different industries,
•    qual with in-depth interviews and quant with online research
•    in the course of time

2.2. Multi-client Qual Study – One for All and All for One

For culturally relevant subjects of general interest such as sustainability, a multi-client study is the most cost-effective way of elaborating the specific topic of general interest. On the one hand, all participants can share general parts of the study and discuss them at a round table (synergy effects). On the other, product and brand specific parts which they want to have exclusively are presented only for the specific company.

2.3. Including Consumer and Marketing Perspective – How to Address Both

The gap between consumers’ and marketing’s perspective is obvious. The construct of sustainability is a buzzword of marketing, but mostly unknown respectively undefined by the consumer. Nevertheless. both feel moral pressure to do more for sustainability and are plagued by similar fears of futility. How to combine both interests, needs and argumentation was one aim of the study.

2.4. Combination of Qual and Quant – Revealing the Cover and Impact story of Sustainability

We conducted 40 in-depth interviews and 2 focus groups using the Morphological Research Approach in order to understand the impact story of sustainability and not only the cover story. A follow-up with 1000 respondents helped cover a broader relevance.

2.5. Desk Research focusing on 20 Earlier Studies – Relevance of Sustainability in the Course of Time

Desk research concentrating on 20 earlier studies enabled us to evaluate the relevance of sustainability in the course of time. We explored issues around why sustainability is on the rise nowadays and how it is embedded in our current culture.

3. The Construct of Sustainability – The Important Unknown

Sustainability is a term that is being used more and more often nowadays, but only very few consumers know what is at issue. Associations range from ‘something that lasts a long time or keeps you full for a long time’ to something to do with environmental protection, child labour, etc.

But while on the surface consumers don’t seem understand exactly what sustainability is, they do see it as being a top of great import and gravity. Consumers find the topic tedious, feel admonished and called upon to think beyond their own lives and beyond the here and now. They feel pangs of conscience.

The significance of sustainability is becoming apparent only gradually. Consumers associate sustainability with food scandals (EHEC, etc.), animal manipulation (antibiotics in fish, genetically engineered chicken breasts, etc.), energy generation (nuclear power, oil, climate change, and other natural disasters), exploitation of the Third World, the threat that the place they live in will lose importance as a location for industry, insufficient education and nutrition for children, etc.

Regarding all of these issues, people have created the problems themselves (manipulation of nature, greed, etc.).

3.1. Moral pressure is growing

On the one hand, consumers are feeling more and more that the world/nature is coming apart at the seams on account of human intervention (climate change, increasing natural disasters, etc.). It is as though our current ego and profit maximization culture has gone too far. People fear that nature wants revenge.

As a result, the moral pressure to act in sustainable ways has becoming stronger on the whole. Sustainability seems to be an important issue of our age.

3.2 Futility Dilemma

On the other hand, consumers say that ultimately it’s impossible to think about everything, about the entire environment, something will always be neglected.

Consumers repeatedly say that it is impossible and futile to tend to everything and consider all connections. Whatever we do, it’s wrong (energy savings lamp, separation of waste, etc.). Consumers cite examples such as energy-saving lights, which consist of toxic mercury, and garbage separation, where in the end everything is mixed together again. Many consumers view sustainability with great scepticism, seeing it as a subject with which they are ‘fooled’ and which ultimately only serves business.

4. Sustainability – Why Now?

4.1. Changes in Attitudes Towards Sustainability in the Course of Time

Sustainability issues in the broadest sense, including eco, organic, and LOHAS, have been driving a green consumer movement for a long time now. But their relevance and consumers’ attitudes towards them have changed over the years:

•    The green consumer movement in Germany reflects a guilty conscience on the part of Germans vis-à-vis their history. The revival of economic prosperity in the country has triggered this guilty conscience.
Germans fought against dying forests, nuclear power plants, and pesticides, and the green movement has relied on ecologically manufactured products. The green movement manifests itself politically in the Green party.

•    Even today, green consumption is still a reaction to consumers’ guilty conscience about their greed in the shopping and consumer paradise constituting today’s Germany. But consumers’ attitudes toward ecologically produced products have changed. Organic products used reflect asceticism (a shrivelled up organic carrot) and a lack of enjoyment. Nowadays, organic products stand for especially sensual, more flavourful, more authentic products (organic is mass market and is associated more with better quality than asceticism and a lack of enjoyment).

•    But today’s trend towards sustainability has more do with a longing for a new decency and modesty? Why?

4.2. Sustainability is a Longing for a New Decency

In today’s ‘multioptional’ society, people have the impression that they can do everything, but that they don’t have to do anything. Consumers are caught between a sense of omnipotence and a feeling of powerlessness. As a result, they are in a dilemma. They feel that they can achieve anything but in reality don’t have much of an impact. The consumer’s world is akin to a hamster wheel: busy, frenetic activity without really moving forward.
Nowadays an ego culture and creation mania are in the foreground. Former deadly sins such as miserliness, greed, envy, and lust are ‘in’, modesty and decency are in the background.
But consumers are feeling increasingly powerless. Disasters and scandals reported in the media (Fukushima, climate catastrophes, the financial crisis, food scandals, etc.) convey the impression that the world is falling apart at the seams. People’s manipulations are coming back to haunt them.
People’s original feeling of omnipotence is turning into one of powerlessness. The ego culture of the 1990s seems to be backfiring. People are looking for new standards and values in an attempt to overcome their feeling of powerlessness and to feel omnipotent.

4.3. Mechanisms for Salvaging Decency

Four mechanisms for salvaging a sense of decency could be found:

4.3.1. Scandalization
Today people take delight in scandals, whether they are political scandals, food scandals, or other kinds of scandals. By seeing these misdeeds, consumers are reminded of failed orders and feel important. Scandals shake people up, reminding them that there should be standards and values. Scandals call on people to create order. At the same time, certain people or companies can be defined as ‘whipping boys’ on which consumers let off steam. This enables consumers to deal with their omnipotence.

4.3.2.    Participation Through Transparency
A new desire to be in control can be observed among consumers. They research many things themselves. Media such as the Internet, Apps for control scans, etc. help them do this research. Consumers are calling for transparency and origins to be disclosed. They hope that with this knowledge they can have more control and participate better in overall processes. In keeping, one can observe an increased obsession with seals of approval. German consumers want everything to be tested and safeguarded by independent institutes such as Ökotest, Fair Trade etc.

4.3.3.    Models of Decency
In the eyes of consumers, major moral authorities such as the Church and politicians have failed. As a result, consumers search for a new morality and decency has no guidelines and they look for role models in different spheres. But there is always the threat of failure. They look for guidelines in people (e.g. business personalities or involved celebrities), the world of magic, or e.g. by romanticizing family, their home country or region, or nature.

4.3.4.    Purification Through Humility
Another strategy is to adopt a modest and humble attitude. Consumes seek to become less egotistical and think more about others, to put themselves in other people’s shoes and thus change their perspective.
They believe that by being humble, they can achieve a kind of purification and higher morality. By being modest, they hope for a kind of purification through which they can ultimately attain more greatness.
In connection with sustainability, respondents talk about small moments of happiness, in which they feel humble and able to work things through on a microcosmic level.
An example: Separating garbage and tidying up their neighbours’ rubbish bins makes them feel that a little order has been restored in the world. As though they have made their contribution to tidying up the world. “The feeling of happiness lifts you up.”

Graphic n° 1:  ego culture vs. culture of decency with treatment mechanisms











5. Sustainability and the Purchase Decision

5.1. Consumers’ view of brands has changed:
Consumers used to gauge brands based solely on the benefits they offered and their image compared to rival brands. Consumers were not very interested in their impact on the world.
Today consumers are looking for a new modesty in brands. Brands should be in the service of the world and not just celebrate themselves. They should be ‘humble’. Consumers ascribe brands a new responsibility for the world.
With the help of a brand’s commitment, consumers want to have the feeling that they can intervene in world affairs and thus become powerful again.

Sustainability enhances the felt value of a product. The following mechanism is made use of: Consumers’ contribution to the world eases their consciences and makes them feel they are powerful and in control again.

5.2. Sustainability enhances the felt value of a product.

The following mechanism is made use of: Consumers’ contribution to the world eases their consciences and makes them feel they are powerful and in control again.

An example: A private label diaper may be perceived to have the same benefits as a diaper brand: it keeps the baby dry and is soft. But with the additional promise of sustainability, e.g. in Pampers’ tetanus campaign in cooperation with Unicef, there is the following additional benefit: by buying the pack, one makes an important contribution to life-saving care of babies around the world. Mothers equate the care conveyed with a credible basic attitude. They have a good feeling/proof that they can do something about imponderables in the lives of children. Unconsciously, there is a magical promise of healing, raising the spectre that the mother’s own child might be protected form the uncertainties of life due to the contribution the mother has made to the world.

5.3. Sustainability Cements the Choice of a Product

When sustainability is communicated, the following mechanism comes into play: Consumers do not normally switch brands, but remain loyal to their brand, and feel the higher price is justified..

Arguments such as “Is the brand really worth it?”; “There are so many economical alternatives”,  and “When all is said and done, the products are all pretty much the same” are defused by the promise of sustainability in connection with the product: “I have a good feeling when I buy the product, because I’m doing something good at the same time,” “By buying the product I’m making a contribution to the world/humanity”, “I trust my brand. It acts responsibility. I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about it” .

Graphic n° 2: nappy with and without sustainibility promises

6. Symbolism and Mechanisms of Sustainable Advertising

In the course of the study, numerous ads in various product segments relating to sustainability were investigated.
Sustainability advertising uses different symbolism and aesthetics than conventional advertising.

6.1 Tonality: Stirs Up Consumers Rather Than Courting Them

When presented with sustainable advertising, consumers often do not feel courted in the typical sense but called upon to do something, admonished, reminded, etc.
It’s not always a nice feeling, and it can be painful. But it is necessary in consumers’ view, because sustainability advertising aims to educate consumers and make them think.
It aims to enable them to see things in new ways, to reinterpret things so they can move away from the ego perspective. It aims to enable them to put themselves in other people’s shoes. To look at the here and now from the perspective of the future.
Design features of sustainability advertising include conveying unpleasant truths now and then, being authentic, not trying to curry favour with consumers, being brutally honest if need be, and sometimes making people feel uneasy (showing existentical threats).
Some examples:
Dallmayer addresses the issue of exploitation of the Third World.
Pampers hints at African mothers’ struggle for survival and worries about their children.
Liqui Moli shows the serious threat to Germany as a location for industry in a tonality reminiscent of a eulogy.

6.2. Switch to Astronauts’ Perspective

In advertising that addresses the issue of sustainability, often the correlations of existence are viewed from above – as though from an astronaut’s perspective. This incites consumers to change their point of view, because when seen from above, everything seems interrelated and belonging to one big entirety (magical connections). Consumers get the impression that they are part of the whole and often react with modesty, humility, and respect.

6.3. Humility of Brand and Product

Consumers perceive sustainability advertising to be more restrained. It does not show the advantages of the product, but rather communicates the product’s commitment to the world. The main aim is not to sell the product but to convey a basic attitude and a link to the world. A few examples of advertising: Liqui Moly, Iglo, Volvic

The following design features are often coupled with this:
•    Protagonists bow down, are often turned to the earth or people
•    Nature/the world/humanity is at the centre – the product is on the periphery
•    Restrained claims, sometimes questioning, hesistant, soliciting
Having an impact in a smaller sphere but doing things right – e.g. regionalism
6.4. Sustainability Advertising Arouses Hope (Replenishment)

While advertising addressing sustainability alludes to threats (climate disasters, resource exploitation, etc.), at the same time it should arouse hope and give consumers the feeling that there is a solution and they can do something. Sustainability advertising should normally be encouraging and uplfting. It should no be too morbid or consumers will reject it, for they already have a propensity to think that their efforts to promote sustainaiblity might be futile.

6.5. You Can Help!

Consumers want to feel that they can have an impact by buying a product. Sustainability advertising should show how their small contribution can help achieve something big, e.g. by buying a package they can save a human life, or a litre of Volvic creates 10 litres of drinking water in Africa. Concrete conversions and calculations are desired. Exponentiations are particularly important, i.e. big things can be saved (e.g. human lives, industry, children in Germany, etc.). Only when consumers see the correlation between their own effort and a big result do they have a feeling of potency and power (omnipotence).

6.6. Unify the World!

Sustainability advertising often works with unification hymns (e.g. Coca-Cola – 125 pleasures of life) and asks people to think globally and holistically. The aim is to transcend borders (e.g. no division into First and Third World). In advertising relating to sustainability, consumers want to see how people work together on an issue and have an effect together. A ‘we’ feeling strenghtens their confidence.

6.7. Cooperation with Authentic Safeguards

Cooperation with authentic companies or people who champion the issue is very important for sustainability advertising. People or companies are sought who are credibly involved in an issue and who – ideally – are independent of the advertising campaign.

In Germany they include Claus Hipp, whose very name is a safeguard, Götz Werner, who runs his company with an anthroposophic attitude, Karl-Heinz Böhm, who has been involved in Ethiopia aid for years, and Markus Lanz, who approaches foreign cultures on an equal footing.

Cooperation with aid organisations such as Unicef, Greenpeace, and WWF safeguard the involvement.

6.8. Origin of the Company Determines Choice of Strategy

In consumers’ view, the choice of a communication strategy depends on c the following issues: Where does one stand with one’s product, brand, or company? What has the previous communication/PR been like? What is the company’s self-image?
A typical product/company in today’s ego culture (e.g. McDonald’s or MüllerMilch) has to bring about the switch to sustainability differently from a company/product associated with caring for others, e.g. Pampers, or with moral decency, e.g. dm.

7. View of Marketing: The Sustainability Dilemma

The interviews with the marketing managers differ in several respects from those with the end consumers. The marketers have much easier “access” to the issue of sustainability, have a better knowledge of the facts, have a broader understanding of sustainability, and consequently address ecological as well as social and ethical aspects.

Although the marketing managers accept sustainability with elan, no one wants to communicate the topic explicitly from their own company:

Due to inflationary and inadequate usage, particularly in politics, the term sustainability has become a hackneyed, watered-down phrase. But marketing wants sustainability to be conveyed authentically.
“Sustainable behaviour has to come from the heart. Otherwise it seems contrived and consumers don’t believe it. It’s too serious and important to be seen as an advertising gag.”

Sustainability is considered important but also dangerous:
As people, marketeers – like consumers – see the increasing moral pressure to act sustainably as expressing a new decency. At the same time they see their core task as selling products at maximum profit. They are often evaluated based on fast successes and only rarely on long-term developments.
“Sustainability implies long-term activities, but marketing aims to make money in the short term – it’s hard to reconcile these two things.”

Moreover, marketers worry about making claims that their company will not keep in the end. Thus, they often adhere to the following basic attitude: Help the world but don’t talk about it! It’s better to get involved silently to ease your conscience than to be vulnerable to attack.

“When you show how sustainable you are in a certain area, people discover areas where you’re not sustainable.”
“Sustainable behaviour has to come from the heart. Otherwise it seems contrived and consumers don’t believe it. It’s too serious and important to be seen as an advertising gag.”

8. Conclusions: Sustainability Describes a Changed Cultural and Consumer Climate and Is Not Only an Added Benefit  

The current culture and consumers are plagued by fears of crises and a guilty conscience.

Recent cultural developments, including the international financial crisis, natural disasters such as Fukushima, continual scandals involving politicians and food, illnesses caused by excessive breeding, genetic manipulation, etc. have heightened the impression that the world is falling apart at the seams due to human intervention. It is as though our current ego and profit maximization culture has gone too far.

Thus, the moral pressure to act in sustainable ways has become stronger. Sustainability is an important issue of our time, as it represents a longing for a new decency and morality. Sustainability describes a generally changed culture and consumption climate and not only an added benefit or something that is ‘nice to have’.

8.1. New Demands on Marketing: Humble and Decent Brands

This situation is having massive effects on marketing. New demands are being placed on brands and companies. Every chemical group, baby food manufacturer, insurance company, and fast food producer has to reposition itself in this cultural climate of sustainability. Although companies do not want their advertising to address the issue of sustainability explicitly, because they do not want to appear to be simply jumping on the bandwagon, nowadays every company has to ask critical questions about sustainability.

So far, however, brands have been busy profiling themselves, expanding themselves into a brand universe, and competing to be the biggest and best in their brand universe. The question of how they are embedded in larger global contexts, e.g. whether they are having a positive effect on the world, has generally been neglected. Thus, so far brands have usually been special representatives of the ego culture.

Today, however, consumers are looking for a new humility in brands. They want brands to be put themselves in the service of the world and not celebrate themselves. Brands that show such humility, i.e. ‘making themselves smaller’ and not directly presenting the product as a hero, serve the larger context. In this way, they can show that they are truly great.

8.1. New Demands on Marketing: Humble and Decent Brands (ff)

When a brand is embedded in the bigger picture, consumers can feel more powerful.  Consumers’ need to feel omnipotent has not become more modest but bigger. With the help of brands, they can feel like they are saving the world, no less.
Consumers are searching for a new ethical attitude on the part of brands and companies.
But brand programmes are often too restricted and fragmented to serve as guidelines for basic moral attitudes. The mega and meta brands that have developed, which tend to embody basic attitudes (e.g. Nivea, Dove as well as retailers such as Aldi and REWE) accommodate this desire for fundamental moral attitudes.

Ecological or social involvement that is compatible with the respective product segment and company, e.g. Pampers’ cooperation with Unicef on tetanus vaccinations, McDonald’s involvement in creating training places for youth, and the moral convictions of entrepreneurs such as Götz Werner and Claus Hipp, are particularly appreciated in today’s cultural and consumer climate. While such involvement in issues around sustainability does not necessarily induce consumers to switch to the brand, it often cements brand loyalty and promotes further usage of the product.

8.2. New Demands Regarding Advertising Aesthetics: Not Only the Product is     the Hero

The aesthetics of advertising has also changed in the current cultural and consumer climate. Consumers are placing new demands on symbols and design features. It is particularly important that the brand and product are presented as being more modest in communication design, that they do not promote and celebrate themselves but put themselves in the service of the larger context. That they do something for the world and consumers, so that consumers continue to feel in control of their world and able to accomplish big things.

8.3. New Demands on Research: One for All and All for One

The sustainability climate is also posing new challenges to the research and consulting process. Companies are aslo thinking in terms of larger contexts and cooperation in the fields of research and consulting.

Direct cooperation is sought between consumer and marketing – cf. consumer portals such as the Nestlé marketplace and the numerous research endeavours involving co-creation with the participation of consumers and marketing. Companies want to come very close to consumers’ needs.

Often, several different customers cooperate in multi-client studies or round tables. This has advantages: multi-client studies are a cost-effective measure once you have a general topic from which different industries can learn. They are worthwhile as long as the topic is still fresh and none of the parties involved has any advancement in knowledge. They allow companies with smaller research budgets to participate. Still: there is no need for participants to disclose confidential information, as this is included in voluntary special parts for their brands and issues.

When companies are accused of not acting sustainably or have been criticised by Foodwatch,, Greenpeace, Ökotest, etc., it is advisable for them to engage in dialogue and communication with the new moral authorities rather than trying to fight them.

In the current zeitgeist, there is a longing for cooperation rather than opposition. There is a longing for one for all and all for one.


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The authors:
Nicole Hanisch, Vice President, rheingold Institute for Qualitative Market and Media Research, Cologne, Germany.

Jens Lönneker, Managing Director, rheingold Institute for Qualitative Market and Media Research, Cologne, Germany

Über Jens Lönneker:

Jens Lönneker lebt in Köln und befasst sich national und international mit tiefenpsychologischen Analysen – von der Grundlagenforschung und Produktentwicklung bis hin zur Überprüfung von Werbemaßnahmen in den Bereichen Food, Getränke, Duft und Printmedien. Er veröffentlicht zudem Beiträge zu den Themenfeldern Ernährung, Medien, Sponsoring und Verfassungsmarketing und ist als Referent im In- und Ausland tätig. Zudem hat er Lehraufträge an der Universität der Künste in Berlin und der Business School Potsdam (BSP) und ist Gastreferent an der Universität St. Gallen.

Jens Lönneker wurde am 6. November 1957 in Hannover geboren. Nach der Schulausbildung kam er nicht direkt zur Psychologie, sondern absolvierte zunächst eine Ausbildung zum Bankkaufmann. Erst 1980 begann er sein Psychologie-Studium an der Universität Köln. Sieben Jahre später gründete Lönneker in der Domstadt zusammen mit Stephan Grünewald das auf tiefenpsychologische Forschung spezialisierte rheingold Institut für qualitative Markt- und Medienanalysen. rheingold ist heute eine der ersten Adressen in der qualitativen Marktforschung.

In seiner Freizeit widmet sich Jens Lönneker besonders seiner Familie. Er liebt es, sich Zeit zum Lesen und Faulenzen zu nehmen. Außerdem ist der Diplom-Psychologe begeisterter Marathon-Läufer.

Über rheingold salon:

Der rheingold salon ist die neue Unit des rheingold Instituts für qualitative Markt- und Medienanalysen, einer der renommiertesten Adressen der qualitativ-psychologischen Markt- und Wirkungsforschung. Zu den Aufgaben des salon zählen neben der „klassischen“ Marktforschung die Beratung bei der Entwicklung und Umsetzung strategischer Konzepte, Unterstützung bei Marketing und Kommunikation sowie die Moderation von Workshops. Der salon arbeitet an der Schnittstelle zwischen Marketeers und Agenturen.  Die Basis der Arbeit bildet dabei die  morphologischen Markt- und Medienforschung, die an der Universität Köln entwickelt wurde. Zu den Kunden des salon zählen die bekanntesten Adressen der deutschen und internationalen Wirtschaft.

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