Do’s and Don’ts: Communicating to Customers About Your Circular Products and Services

October 31, 2018
u michigan
Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, University of Michigan | MBA/MS 2019

Until recently, we have lived in a linear economic system that operates under a “take, make, and dispose” philosophy, which ends in waste. In contrast, circular economies develop services and products that are guided by three main principles: design out waste and pollution, extend the life cycle of materials and products, and regenerate ecosystems.

There is a huge opportunity for businesses to better communicate these new concepts and engage consumers in recognizing and changing their purchase patterns for more sustainable consumption. Furthermore, timely and on-point messaging keeps customers engaged with your company’s brands.

This list of do’s and don’ts is a starting point for companies looking to improve communications regarding circular economy and sustainability—or companies that are communicating about their circular ambitions, products, and services to their customers for the first time.

Help consumers understand their new role in the circular economy and provide incentives to take on that new role.

A circular economy requires a significant shift in a consumer’s mind to increase their level of participation and to adopt new behaviors such as returning products, paying for access rather than ownership, and reusing materials. To support this behavior change, companies need to explicitly communicate their expectations of consumers after the product’s or service’s use phase. It should also be convenient or beneficial for consumers to take those actions after the use phase.

An Ellen MacArthur Foundation study found that the number-one factor driving consumers’ willingness to resell, donate, or recycle goods was convenience. Consumers cared less about getting the most money for their electronics or clothing than the ease of the take-back program. The circular economy can increase the touch points associated with the customer experience.

Support new behavior by communicating with your customers through the use phase.

Email marketing, brand-specific apps, and social media have made communicating with consumers after the point of sale easier than ever. Brands can support consumers’ behavior changes by communicating with them at key moments during the product or service life cycle.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that customers prefer to receive a few text messages from their product reminding them that it needs service or repair, rather than a call from a retailer. Rather than sending a message from your marketing team, frame your message so that it comes from the product directly. This builds connections between your customers and your products—and when customers care about their belongings more, they tend to keep them longer.

Don’t lose your customer to language.

Don’t get bogged down in sustainability jargon and lose people to facts. Social marketing research shows that people rarely shift their behavior as a result of the presentation of information, but that a blend of rational and emotional appeals is more effective. Circular marketers are better served building strong brands through cultural appeal and emotion-based campaigns.

WRAP found that certain words had negative connotations to consumers. A “leasing service” was associated with lower income, but framing that exact same service as a club that customers paid to gain access to generated a much more positive response.

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

Very few brands are encouraging their customers to consume less or more consciously, but if circular marketers aren’t going to be the ones to do it, who will? Until your company is completely circular or we live in a completely circular economy, the onus is on the most responsibly minded business leaders to speak up about the elephant in the room. We have a consumption problem, and unless we drastically change how we make, produce, and dispose of our products, we aren’t going to be able to sustain our projected consumption levels in the upcoming decades.

Make and talk about your kick-ass product or service.

At the end of the day, it isn’t consumers’ responsibility to support and grow a circular economy. A circular economy needs to support consumers who are just trying to live their lives. Despite shoppers’ most noble intentions, research shows that price, quality, and social value are the three primary drivers dictating purchase. There is no replacement for a good product or service, and companies offering the best are the ones that will win in the market. Make an amazing product and service that just so happens to be circular in nature, and the clicks and buys will follow.