2. Social recognition. Another ancestral trait is that humans strive to achieve relative (though not absolute) status. This means that humans want a certain level of wealth, power or fame in relation to those around them. Such behavior – the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” – is well documented. For example, neighbors of Dutch lottery ticket winners have a higher propensity to purchase new cars or renovate the exterior of their existing homes within the following six months after the winner takes home the money. Such behavior, however, can be problematic as it can lead to over consumption.
Interestingly, consumption is not the only way to display relative status. In fact, as Griskevicius et al. mention somewhat counterintuitively, status can also be achieved through competitive altruism whereby wealthy donors compete for status based on the amount donated, with public recognition for their generosity as a primary motivator.
But marketers can drive eco-friendly actions more broadly with consumers, not just with wealthy donors. The Elan Inn in Hangzhou, China, for example, rewards guests for reducing their carbon impact by moderating room temperatures in summer and winter, or even bringing their own towel. Such rewards would be even more powerful if status were associated with visible perks enjoyed during a hotel stay or meaningful badges displayed on Facebook or local social networks.
3. Social influence. A final ancestral trait is for humans to unconsciously emulate the behavior of others. For marketers, the challenge is to redirect the behavior by holding up pro-environmental behavior to emulate. For example, as Griskevicius et al. point out, it has been demonstrated that the conservation behavior of one’s neighbors is “often the strongest predictor of [one’s] actual energy use.”
Such benchmarking against others works well as long as a majority demonstrates the desired eco-friendly behavior. But, what happens if only a few neighbors do?
Griskevicius et al. suggest that in this situation, green marketers should reframe the message to create the perception that more people do. They provide an illustration: Instead of communicating that only 5 percent of municipal residents carpool, message that 250,000 do. Reframing the message from a relative to absolute basis can create the perception that more people support the eco-friendly behavior, elevating the social influence that a campaign can actually have.
Hardwired human traits present a challenge for green marketers, as individual behaviors that benefit natural selection may collectively be detrimental to the environment. Instead of confronting them head on, marketers should reframe behaviors to be more pro-social, while ensuring that they are perceived to benefit the individual. By doing so, marketers turn headwinds more favorable.
Abstract vector illustration of evolution by Kevin Renes via Shutterstock.