Communicating to the Consumer Is About Value, Not Geometry

October 31, 2018
nyu
Director of Corporate Research and Engagement, NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business

The concept of the circular economy is not new. However, as companies integrate circular concepts into new products, services and business models, they are facing the relatively new challenge of communicating circularity to their consumers. That only 42% of companies currently market their circular products and services, as such, suggests that most companies either have not started to consider or are still figuring out how to address this challenge.[1] Nevertheless, the circular economy represents a $4.5 trillion opportunity.[2] Moreover, consumers are a critical link in many of the business models leveraging circularity (i.e., recycling, leasing, sharing, etc.). Therefore, engaging the consumer and enabling their participation, is a key success factor for driving a more circular economy. As companies consider this challenge, a lot can be gained by reviewing the lessons learned from messaging sustainability.

  1. Keep your lead message focused on consumer value. Consumers need their business case for action.[3] Products that deliver for the environment but are supported by messages focusing exclusively on environmental outcomes have consistently fallen flat in the marketplace. Therefore, when communicating about your company’s circular products and services, communicate how your company’s circular innovation delivers its core service and the functional, emotional and societal benefits it delivers for consumers. On its website, Via, the carpooling service available in New York, Washington, DC and Chicago, IL, advertises that it will get you where you want to go quickly and conveniently, and in a way that will allow you to interact with fellow passengers, and save you money and greenhouse gas emissions.[4]
  2. Incorporate messaging on circularity to engage and capture the imagination of the consumer. In 2015, Intermarche (a French retailer) earned a Gold medal in the Positive Change Effie Awards for its campaign promoting ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables’.[5] Offering a 30% discount on ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables that normally would be thrown away, Intermarche took aim at reducing food waste in response to the European Union declaring 2014 ‘the Year Against Food Waste’. The pilot campaign was successful enough that Intermarche expanded its second campaign to all 1,800 of its stores.[6] Since that time, ugly fruits and vegetables has become a global trend, with product offerings in more than 15 grocery chains across the US, and in retail outlets in more than 20 other countries around the world.[7] Though reducing food waste through ugly produce is not, by itself, a circular innovation, the broader uptake by the consumer is illustrative of what can happen when messaging on key themes of circularity (i.e., resource efficiency and waste reduction / elimination) engages and motivates consumer action.
  3. Keep the messaging on circularity clear and concise. The language of sustainability (and circularity) can be rather complex and technical, and can be too technical and complex for the typical consumer to correctly digest and interpret. A Cone Communications study found that more than 50% of US consumers incorrectly concluded that commonly used marketing terms like ‘green’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ means that a product has either a neutral or positive impact on the environment.[8] Therefore, keep circular jargon out of the discussion. International Flavors and Fragrances, for example, refers to regenerative products that are driven by circular concepts.[9] Similarly, messaging for Nike’s Grind products includes ‘regenerating existing products…to deliver performance that never quits’.[10]
  4. Finally, be transparent in your communication to build consumer trust. Consumer demands for transparency and honesty in corporate communications are rapidly accelerating, and advances in digital and mobile technology provide companies unprecedented opportunities to show to the consumer, and not just message to the consumer, how circularity delivers value. Whether it is HarvestMark, whose solutions allow consumers to trace fruit and vegetables back to the source, or the radical transparency displayed by Everlane, who openly shares its costs to produce its products, companies are engaging the consumer and growing brand trust by being transparent and honest.[11]

[1] World Business Council for Sustainable Development and The Boston Consulting Group. 2018. The New Big Circle: Achieving Growth and Business Model Innovation Through Circular Economy Implementation:

[2] Lacy, Peter and Jakob Rutqvist. 2015. Waste to Wealth – The Circular Economy Advantage. New York/London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] Keeble, Justin, and K. Eckerle. 2013. Engaging Tomorrow’s Consumer. World Economic Forum. Futerra and BSR. 2015. Selling Sustainability: Primer for Marketers.

[8] Cone Communications, Consumers still purchasing, but may not be ‘buying’ companies’ environmental claims, 27 March 2012; accessed at: http://www.conecomm.com/2012-cone-green-gap-trend-tracker.