Selling sustainability to blokes that drive Holdens, support the Crusaders and listen to the Rock.

A balanced and nutritious meal containing vegetables (tomatoes and hops), carbohydrate (pastry and malt), water in the beer and protein in the beef.

Personally I think sustainability is a bloody good idea, and my guess is that most  of the people reading this will agree with me, and that’s not because I’m 6 ft 3 biker. But how come so few people feel the same way? Do I need to look more menacing?

As a marketer I m unashamedly from the sales camp, and over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about selling sustainability to Garth and Kylie Citizen – you know who I mean, they’re the type of people who drive V8 Holdens or SUVs and think climate change was invented by Al Gore as a moneymaking venture. It’s them we need to convince, not each other, yet from my observations a lot of the sustainability dialogue is people like you and I agreeing with each other about how important sustainability is. When I look at the various sustainable businesses, they’re run by people like you and they’re targeting people like you and I.

Until we get Garth and Kylie on board we’re buggered, and I’m not looking forward to the day I have to explain to my kids why we did such a lousy job selling sustainability. Yet sustainability is such a bloody good idea that it should sell itself, so why isn’t everyone into it?

I believe that sustainability is foundering because we’ve made some fundamental errors that any sales rep worth their company car would avoid, including:

1. Scaring people into submission.

In some situations fear works well as a sales tool, but its effectiveness wears off very quickly because nobody likes being scared and they’ll look for every possible argument to counter that fear. In 2006 Al Gore had everyone freaking out over drowning polar bears and boats in the desert, but it didn’t take long before he, and along with him the IPCC, was taken less seriously than Sarah Palin. If people could find a blog with a scientific sounding name like “international global independent scientific climate change research and analysis center” that said they didn’t have to worry because climate change was invented by the evil and immeasurably powerful Greens to crush the delicate flower of capitalism, they believed it. Just because it was written by a 19 year old intern working for the PR department of Exxon and had no basis on anything at all didn’t make it wrong.  When Sarah Palin agreed that there was no such thing as anthropogenic climate change; hell, that was the end of the argument – that woman can see Russia from her front porch; I challenge you to name just ONE climate scientist who can do that!

2. Blinding them with science.

Just as bad; we’ve used hard data, quoted scientists and long words like anthropogenic and carbon sequestration to sell the idea. In a previous life I worked for a big company as a financial planner, which was a pretentious way to say I sold investment products to rich people. I started at the same time as a chap called M who was a chartered accountant and was in the final stages of qualifying as a financial planner, whereas back then my highest qualification was a full motorcycle license, but I did have over 10 years sales experience including selling insurance. At the end of the first 6 months my sales figures were about 10 times M’s sales, so I was asked to sit in on a client meeting with him to see what he was doing wrong. The clients were a retired farmer and his wife and M kept saying things like “the bond markets are currently demonstrating a positive yield curve, therefore the strategy I have engaged with your asset allocation is….” They felt ignorant because he used long words they’d never heard before so he was obviously much cleverer than they were. As soon as they could they excused themselves and escaped. It’s the same for us, when we tell people that “sustainable business practices are essential because….” and proceed to bang on about “Brundtland definitions”, “Stern Reports” and “exhausting natural capital” we alienate our audience, especially if we talk about how the scientific consensus contradicts what they want to believe. Then they listen to people like Sarah Palin because they don’t feel as though they’re being talked down to.

3. Expecting a miraculous conversion to the One True Path

Probably worst of all we expect people to believe us when we tell them just how good and great sustainability is. You and I know that it’s actually a really good idea, but it calls for a change in attitude leading to a change in behaviour. It calls for to change from the addictive behaviour of consumption. Everyone has been  told it is not just their right but their duty to “stimulate the economy” by going shopping, and the banks have lined up with buckets of cash to buy the cool stuff everyone needs. People have to have cool stuff because it’s what they own that defines them as people and declares their position in their tribe.

Cool and important people are easy to identify.

Is there a better way?

When I was a financial planner I was successful because I always made a point of getting to know my clients. Instead of expecting them to come to my office, I’d go to their homes, and over a cup of tea we’d  talk about their grandchildren and their  gardens instead of about modern portfolio theory or global equity markets. Getting to know them meant I could identify what was important to them which meant I could give them what they actually wanted and the explain it to them using language and terms they understood.

If we want to get more businesses embracing sustainability, we need to “walk a mile in their moccasins” so we can learn what their values and priorities are, understand how they think, share their vision and find a way that they can use sustainable business practices to get what they want in life.



5 thoughts on “Selling sustainability to blokes that drive Holdens, support the Crusaders and listen to the Rock.

  1. I think we’re not getting much headway because we are too busy telling people why sustainability is important to dolphins, rainforests and the people living on Kiribati. The average Kiwi may genuinely have a soft spot for dolphins and be not overly keen on rainforests being cut down, but if Hector dolphins became extinct or Kiribati sank they would probably not even notice. On the other hand, if the bank foreclosed on their mortgage or they couldn’t afford Sky, they would notice because that’s what’s important to them.

    If we want to bring the wider community into sustainability we need to frame it in ways that they connect with and give them outcomes that they want..

  2. Hmmmm – do you really mean we should drive 100k in their SUV? Or do we need to start at the point of getting people to think about what is really important to them? Where would you start? We’re not making much progress starting from where we are at. I listened to Lesley Stone Sust Mgr at Ak Uni last week and her main message was to get more people on board she had to start with the things that were important t the people – recycling! And whilst it is one of the least impt areas it got more people involved.

    • Thanks for that. I think one of the problems with green thinking is that because it is so intrinsically logical and morally correct we forget that it’s an idea that needs selling just as much as the idea of owning a new SUV or voting for a political party needs selling. If the effort and money that goes into selling either of those ideas does the world would be in a much better place.

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