Sustainability and American Identity, Part 1

by Aug 31, 2016

This year’s Eco Pulse study came back with a really surprising statistic: 45% of Americans say buying/using eco-friendly products is an important part of their personal image.

What’s amazing about this statistic is that Shelton Group has been asking the same question for four years, and in all previous years that statistic has held rock steady at 26%.

This year we saw a dramatic jump. This data point is more than just the harbinger of the shift from “early adopters” to the “early majority” – we believe it’s pointing to a shift in American identity.

This new data point had us thinking back to other moments in our cultural experience when there was a collective shift in what was acceptable and what wasn’t. Littering was a growing concern in America in the 1950s and 1960s, when throwing trash out of car windows was the norm. Lady Bird Johnson made highway beautification her cause as First Lady in 1963 and contributed to the shift in cultural acceptance. The Ad Council’s famous campaign with the iconic crying Native American man beside the littered highway reminding us, “People start pollution and people can stop it,” also contributed to the shift in cultural acceptance. By the time Shelton’s Green Living Pulse™ was fielded in 2012, not only was littering no longer acceptable, it had become a source of embarrassment for a majority of Americans. (In fact, Americans told us they’d be more embarrassed for someone to see them littering than for someone to know they cheated on their taxes.)

Another artifact of American culture that comes to mind when we think of these tectonic shifts in cultural acceptance is smoking. What was once Hollywood chic is now not even acceptable in most public places. Anti-smoking campaigns and legislation are working.

A recent study by the American Legacy Foundation, the sponsors of the truth® campaign, found that the 2009 campaign has significantly reduced smoking rates among high-school-aged teens. The truth® campaign attributes its success, in part, to approaching public service messaging like a brand would, and fighting the powerful branding of big tobacco with brand stories of its own. Here are a couple of good write-ups on this campaign … and there are definitely some clues in here for marketers of sustainability:

Bottom line: we know brands are a means of identity creation in consumer societies. And with the shift of sustainability into the realm of identity creation, there is a clear opportunity for authentically sustainable brands to help mainstream America live up to their best selves. In fact, proponents of “movement marketing” will tell you that joining the dialogue and aligning your brand with deeply held beliefs is the marketing of the future. And here are a couple of good pieces on that:

So, for all you brands out there that have an authentic sustainability story to tell, now is your time. More to come in a few weeks on this topic – and how to leverage this key moment in time with your marketing efforts.

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About the Author

Susannah Enkema

Susannah leads the research department in developing projects, and then in dissecting the findings and boiling them down to the most important insights that pave the way for smart marketing strategies and creative approaches. She works closely with the creative and account departments to offer ideas, support and information that help all departments meet client goals.

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