Making responsible living a hit – the behavioural science way: By Xinyu Tok

May 27, 2019

How can marketing principles be applied to further sustainable living practices? The context in this case is to encourage more ethical and sustainable food choices. This question was posed to me recently in a conversation. Despite being in the business of growing brands, I was stumped momentarily. The chasm between marketing focused on goods and services and what is essentially a lifestyle appears to be vast at first. However, a closer examination reveals the universality of marketing principles, whether it is in the promotion of consumer products or food choices.

For every new product innovation, ideas have the highest likelihood of success if they are broadly familiar with an element of novelty. We call this Fluent Innovation. Intuitively, this makes sense. Our brains have evolved to recognize patterns while being sharply attuned to new developments. As such, combining ideas that are already fluent and familiar with genuine, surprising novelty help them stand out positively. This ensures they draw attention and are easily understood with less effort and decision making.

What can food innovation learn from this? They have to be familiar and an almost-intuitive incorporation into our daily dietary choices. Bruce Friedrich from the Good Food Institute put it aptly when he pointed out that while there has been a longstanding advocacy of the vegetarian diet, meat consumption is still not slowing down. His proposition is to change the supply instead of demand and akin to choice architecture, to “make the better choice the default choice”. In the case of meat, it has a deep-rooted emotional and cultural significance. Given such a strong appeal, could there ever be a scenario where meat is swapped out, but its cuisine is still enjoyed?

This is when food meets technology. From plant-based meat replica of Beyond Meat and Impossible Meat, we have seen advancement in such innovations that give the taste and texture of meat without being meat. As a result, they are arguably the leading example of fluent meat-alternatives. In fact, 70% of Beyond Meat consumers are said to be flexitarians instead of the presumably vegans or vegetarians (Food Navigator-USA, 2018). This is a testament of their broad appeal to mainstream audiences, and hence their astronomical rise in popularity.

Having developed a potential market winner is only the first step to the solution. A question often asked from clients is: If I have a winning ad, does this mean lesser media spend can be allocated? Well, an ad might be great, but without the might of marketing and distribution, it will be difficult to spread. This train of thought applies to most products as well.

Fame, coupled with high accessibility, plays a critical role in encouraging sustainable or plant-based food choices. Based on availability heuristics (our fast-thinking System 1), if a brand comes readily to mind, it is a good choice. To make these food choices more considered among mainstream audiences, there has to be greater publicity to grow awareness. This is especially critical in our harried culture to be top-of-mind when it comes to deciding for meals.

To create the kind of exposure that would propel the food revolution, we can adopt some ideas from the study of virality. Beyond one to one sharing, it takes a few with substantial broadcasting prowess to exponentiate the spread of a message. Pop culture icons Beyonce & Jay-Z’s recent giveaway of a lifetime worth of concert tickets to fans willing to incorporate more plant-based meals in their diet is one such classic example. This follows Bryon Sharp’s theory on how brands grow as well. Broadcast channels that are able to reach vast and diverse audiences hold the key to fuel in-market growth.

Distribution is another critical element that goes hand-in-hand with Fame to encourage the adoption of such food innovations by being convenient and easily available. The trailblazing Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods set the standard for reaching the mass market by their expansive presence across restaurants, fast-food chains and even grocery stores. This paves the road ahead for all sustainable food innovations to be accepted and integrated into the mainstream.

Apart from Fame and Fluency, heightening the evocative appeal and emotional pull of food innovations forms the third prong (Feeling) of a holistic strategy. As stipulated by Daniel Kahneman, our decisions are often more influenced by how we feel about something than how we think about it. This is especially relevant in the context of food for they hold such strong emotional and cultural significance. Indeed even with high levels of awareness or being a fluent product, if it fails in eliciting any emotional response, they are unlikely to garner broad acceptance. We have also seen in our work that feeling is an accurate predictor of future growth. Therefore, be it in a new food product or a lifestyle choice, they have to garner strong evocative emotional appeal. The resultant positive emotions thus lift appeal and sway decisions in favour of the said idea.

Emotional advertising holds the key in creating and associating the desired strong positive feelings with any idea. They propel ideas with high potential to market success, and are twice as likely to result in major, long-term business effects as campaigns with a rational, System 2 “messaging” element (The Long and Short of It, Les Binet and Peter Field). While there is no fixed approach to an emotional ad, the number one requirement is to elicit happiness.

Case references to inspire effective ads can be taken from bright spots from current food product categories. Taking milk as an example, winning ads often encompass a feel-good theme centred on the familial nature of dairy, and sends a reassuring message about responsible production. Other top performers are sensory evocative, or appeal to mothers’ desire in providing healthy nutrition for their kids. Such emotional triggers for milk could also be applied to campaigns of plant-based milk alternatives.

In a nutshell, for effective messaging, aim for emotional appeal.

With all that being said, there has never been a better moment for businesses to jump onto the sustainable food bandwagon. Not only can they utilise these principles and successful references, they can also benefit from the influx in interest among the people. From Meatless Monday to Veganuary, the movement is propagated globally. In line with the demand, we also see the rise of businesses making their stance on going plant-based. The founding cohort of the Cool Food Pledge alone includes corporate signatories that collectively serve more than 60 million meals annually. With a lot more appealing options for going plant-based, it is much easier to make them a choice. Public policy has also started nudging for a greater embrace of plant-based meals. From the Irish government’s encouragement of vegetarian eating one or two days a week, to the Canada Health Group’s dramatic reduction in its dairy recommendations, food that are sustainable (or plant-based) has indeed reached a tipping point for adoption among the masses.

As Carl’s Jr recent ad for their latest Beyond Famous Star burger humorously says, when the wagon of change comes, it is time to ride along with it. The task for the conscious marketer is to create FameFeeling and Fluency shortcuts for their brands or cause, such that they become the obvious, default choice. The food revolution that is already happening among our current generation thus look set to be embraced on an even larger scale in the succeeding years to come.