Persuading the majority: the sustainability marketer’s conundrum

Persuading the majority: the sustainability marketer’s conundrum

I like Samuel Adams – and not just because he makes a fine beer – but because he was a maverick. “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds,” he once said, providing a stark contrast to the conventional wisdom that the majority always wins.

Setting brush fires in people’s minds: Isn’t that we’re trying to do as sustainability marketers?

Yes, as we’ve reported here often, green is more mainstream than ever. But if you look at the BIG picture, most of the goods and services we buy – from shoes to shampoo and steak to stereos – are still manufactured conventionally, not sustainably. The number of Americans who always buy green isn’t expanding much from year to year, while the number of those who sometimes buy green inches up slowly.

So what can we do to expedite the process of turning the minority into the majority?

Here are some suggestions from William Crano, author of  “The Rules of Influence: Winning When You’re in the Minority.”

  • Be part of the larger group. Be part of “us” rather than “them.” Crano advises working from the inside as an agitator, but as a friendly agitator. Appeal to the majority’s larger, more inclusive identity (i.e., “we’re all Americans”), one that transcends the us vs. them mentality. For sustainability, this might look like we’re reformed Skeptics or Indifferents who have seen the evidence that sustainability is a positive thing. Conversion stories are powerful messages.
  • Persist, don’t retreat – and don’t compromise. The majority’s mission is usually to preserve the status quo, while the minority seeks change. If the minority fails to keep pushing the majority out of its comfort zone, the majority will be content to maintain its current course. Sometimes, the majority will try to co-opt the minority by offering crumbs, leading to a watered down minority position. Companies like Seventh Generation are a good example of the “minority,” pushing themselves and other companies to be more environmentally progressive.
  • Get everyone on board. Sometimes the difference between a majority and a minority is razor thin, so it’s important to make sure you’re working from a strong base that’s aligned and committed. Especially important advice for internal sustainability initiatives that rely on employee engagement.
  • Stick to your message, but know when to be flexible. If our holistic message is “Live a more sustainable life,” then we must also recognize there aren’t always options to do so and be forgiving. For instance, “use public transportation whenever you can” shows flexibility without compromising the greater goal.
  • Transcend the subjective. It’s all too easy to reach an impasse and agree to disagree when there are two subjective truths being argued. The strategy here is to find the objective truth, the irrefutable facts. But as we see in the climate change debate, science doesn’t always win the day. However, the undeniable truth is that we all live on this planet and depend on its resources for our survival; therefore, we should be responsible stewards of it.

It’s not easy being in the minority – but as Millennials gain buying power and the Hispanic population grows, we’ll see sustainability become a basic expectation of the mainstream consumer market. So when sustainability becomes the default value set for most Americans, remember to be empathetic to those who seek to push the status quo, those who seek to start the brush fires just as you’re doing today.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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