The key to climate communications that create real change

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TL/DR: So you’re wondering how to talk about climate change, if you want them to actually take action? The short answer is…you don’t.

Your business cares about the planet. You want to win the hearts and minds of eco-conscious customers by bonding over your shared sustainability values. Or you want to reach the segments of the market that aren’t “going green” yet, and inspire some behaviour change.

If sustainability is a genuine part of your mission, it’s highly likely that at least one person on your comms team is fist-shakingly angry about the state of the climate, or so terrified of the firey hellscape we seem to be hurtling towards that they can’t stop doommongering. Maybe they’ve beefed up their knowledge by digesting the IPCC reports and now they’re stuck in “death by data” and nobody wants to sit next to them at Friday drinks.

Facts, stats, doom, gloom and white hot rage aren’t the way to inspire change. And it goes against anything any of us have ever been taught about sales and marketing.

We have evolved to pay the most attention to immediate threats. This is great for our short-term survival, but difficult for marketeers trying to sell climate action. 

Climate change is complex, and the sheer scale of information required to understand it can confuse our brands and lead to inaction. But even when you break it down into immediate issues and create a sense of urgency, it can fail to inspire change.

The most common messages about climate change are enough to trigger our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ survival instincts – and while many brands position climate action as “the fight of our lives”, if you kick your audience’s reptilian brain into action, they’re likely to ignore you, or fight against your message and enter into the realms of climate denial, rather than join your cause.

A Media and Advertising professor from the University of Amsterdam tested the impact of mood on ad recall, and found that people who were relaxed noticed 56% of ads, compared to those who were stressed, who only noticed 36%. 

Putting your audience in a state of stress by talking about the climate apocalypse is not a sensible strategy if you want them to remember your message and do something about it.

Sell smarter, not harder

As marketeers, we know that people buy aspirationally. It’s one of the reasons why it’s much easier to convince a potential customer to switch their brand loyalty when they’re going through big life events and looking to change their self image.

If we want people to “buy into” our climate action – by either joining the cause or purchasing our eco-friendly products, we need to sell it to them in a smarter way. 

As any behavioural expert will tell you, if you want to influence someone’s behaviour, you need to understand their motivations, make the message relevant, and focus on their desired outcomes.

If we cut down air pollution, we will reduce health conditions like asthma. Our children will grow up healthier.

A low meat, high vegetable diet is reportedly better for the planet. It’s also better for your heart, and may add years to your life. There’s a reason why Quorn paid Mo Farrah to endorse them.

In 2006, UK research group ESRC reviewed over 100 different studies of how people change their behaviour for the better. They found that one of the least effective behavioural motivators was fear.

Experts at Imperial College London have warned that ‘eco-anxiety’ is growing among children. More than 45% of young people in a survey of 10 countries said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning”.

We need to ensure that our climate communications focus on desired outcomes, rather than terrifying alternatives – and we certainly can’t make it sound as if the apocalyptic scenario is a foregone conclusion. In fact, talking about the future at all might be enough to put your audience off.

Thanks to the cognitive bias of hyperbolic discounting, we tend to believe that the present is more important than the future, which stops us taking action to address more distant-feeling, slower moving and complex challenges. 

Making your message relevant to the here and now is the most effective way to cut through.

With all big challenges, we believe that someone else will deal with it. Evolutionarily speaking, it would be a waste of effort for every member of the group to respond to a threat, and this still pertains today. 

We assume our leaders will “step up and sort it out” thanks to ‘the bystander effect’. And while lack of inaction from global leaders might be frustrating, the best way to get your climate messages to cut-through is to make it personally relevant to your audiences’ immediate motivations and aspirations. Even if this means not actually talking about the climate at all.

In 2008, Professor of Psychology and Marketing Robert Cialdini and his co-authors worked with an American hotel to adapt the messages left in rooms trying to encourage towel reuse. 

The first message conveyed the environmental benefits of reusing a towel, and was successful among 35% of visitors.

The second message leveraged social proof – explaining that most people reuse their towels – known as a ‘descriptive norm’ message. This boosted reuse to 44% – a 9 point uplift from the environmental message. 

But this went even further when they ran a third message telling guests that most other guests who stayed in their particular room reuse their towels. This more relevant message boosted compliance to 49%.

 

 Too often, climate communicators focus on what isn’t happening. But instead of discussing how many leaders aren’t taking action, how many people aren’t recycling, or how we’re all being too slow to tackle the crisis, try shifting your message with behavioural biases in mind.

Your message will get greater cut-through if you tailor it to your audiences’ priorities, make it personal, and keep it relevant to the here and now.