Sustainability innovation: Why are services brands struggling to make a success of it?

Several weeks ago the topic of sustainability was discussed amongst colleagues in our Services Practice team over a beer and after a long day of fieldwork.

Not in a very informed way, it must be said. We were tired and it is such a complicated topic, but everybody recognised the scale of the challenge for society, and for brands looking to create exciting, responsibly sustainable, customer-facing propositions.

As it happens several people in the room had tested sustainability-orientated ideas in sectors like banking, energy, and telecoms. It struck us that ideas influenced or grounded in sustainability often get a distinctly lukewarm reception when tested with customers.

As researchers we are at the forefront of testing new ideas. When it comes to sustainability innovation, few are better placed to explain what at first seems a contradiction. That is, customers want to do the ‘right thing’ when it comes to sustainability, but they are often slow to adopt new behaviours or switch to sustainable alternatives.

In this week’s blog, Dan Cooper, director at Incite explores the question: “how can we ensure propositions influenced or grounded in sustainability get a fair hearing from customers?”

wind turbines seen from the air in fields through patches of clouds

1/ Shared responsibility is better than facilitation 

We find brands make a common mistake; they often try to occupy the position of ‘facilitator’. For example, consider a new broadband package or bank account that contains features to help customers understand how they can change their behaviour to be more sustainable. It doesn’t sound very compelling, but it shouldn’t frustrate customers either…. right? Wrong! It often does, because if the brand fails to communicate their own contribution to a more suitable future customers feel patronised and belittled.

The moral of the story seems to be that customers are more receptive when brands act with shared responsibility, instead of simply trying to facilitate behaviour change.

2/ Prioritise value exchange 

 From a customer point-of-view, the point and purpose of a new idea will rarely be to deliver more sustainable outcomes. That can be an important benefit, but ultimately customers want products that solve problems and deliver value in their day-to-day lives.

Without a clear solution to a problem or tension, we find customers tend to judge ideas harshly. And where the idea features elements intended to support sustainable outcomes, that often means directly questioning the relevance of sustainability to the brand in question.

3/ Avoid positioning sustainability as a reward for a select group of customers

Most people accept that moving to a sustainable future is a shared challenge and everybody has a part to play. It follows that brands should make sustainability-related features or benefits available to all customers.

But brands often make the mistake of positioning sustainability as a reward for a select group and instantly, the sense of tackling a shared challenge is lost. At best it creates low-level frustration, at worst it opens the brand up to accusations of acting cynically. At this point, the term ‘green washing’ or ‘green sprinkling’ as we have heard it described, tends to get used.

Testing new ideas is a delicate business and ideas grounded in sustainability are particularly tricky. It requires bravery, creativity, and the ability to take harsh feedback on the chin.

In our time we have been lucky enough to work with some of the biggest brands on all kinds of innovation challenges, helping them sift the wheat from the chaff.

If you have an innovation or customer challenge, we’d love to hear from you.