Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sustainability Ideas | Taking Sustainability To Consumers: Test, Don't Ask

Its no secret that engaging consumers on sustainability is a really tricky challenge for companies. They often prove to be anywhere on a scale of confused or disinterested, to downright dismissive and contemptuous.
Companies often approach this using traditional marketing tools like surveys, polls and consumer segmentation to gain insights that steer communications and innovation. But this often fails to capture the latent, intangible, indirect nature of sustainability needs that consumers find hard to express. Hands up anyone who ever left a consumer research debrief feeling utterly depressed about consumers failure to support your product idea or business case?

Recently I was fortunate enough to be a fly-on-the-wall in some focus groups as part of an ambitious innovation project with eBay Europe, looking at opportunities from sustainable commerce. For confidentiality reasons, I cant talk about the details of the work, but can share general learning from the process. Its always an eye-opening experience " sometimes humbling, sometimes frustrating " to hear from real people about their everyday sustainability choices. But this was doubly fascinating, as the process we ran offers a window on how to more effectively engage consumers on sustainability.

Simplistically put, traditional marketing approaches this as:
*Engage (usually ask) consumers.
*Develop insights to inspire.
Use these to get new business, product or service concepts, which you test with consumers in subsequent stages, before committing to launch.The key consumer interaction that shapes ideas is right at the beginning. The problem with this is if consumers cannot articulate what they want on sustainability, the insights you gain will be limited. This, in turn, will stunt the creation of sustainable products, services and business ideas.

Others have proven the ask them what they want model is not the only way to go. Urban marketing myth has it that the original iPod concept failed to show up in market research and then tested badly with consumers too. Luckily for Apple, they didn't listen.Stuart Rose got it right in positioning the MS Plan A as half a step ahead of consumers. Almost 100 years earlier, Henry Fords did the same in stating if Id asked people what they wanted, they have said a faster horse.Asking people what they want on sustainability simply doesn't cut it.So, in contrast to the above, we used a process of: - "Seek inspiration and insights."Use these to develop ideas and concepts.Engage consumers, to test these.

Our sustainability concepts (14 in total) were sketched-up - bringing them to life and explaining them - then tested with consumers to see what they thought, as opposed to asking them upfront. We have since revisited and revised these accordingly, and they will next go through the same development steps as any other innovation.

Its a model that companies are starting to cotton on to, but rarely on sustainability. Software companies are especially good at it through beta testing, where they produce a workable prototype of a software innovation then launch it to select consumers or for a limited time frame to gauge interest and gain feedback.
Google Buzz , their social networking experiment, was a recent example of this. Similarly with Microsoft Connect " your feedback improving Microsoft products. The automotive industry is an exponent too, using concept cars for 80 years now. These are often ideas-driven, concept prototypes " rarely working or detailed " that they test with consumers at car shows to gauge interest, and even give the market and consumers a bit of a push, helping massage demand.

This gives you the perfect steer from the people you are aiming to influence. For us, it acted as an early filter to determine which ideas our target consumers favor, or will likely buy further down the line, which for a business is rather useful. In return, they gave us a strong mandate and case (though not a guarantee) for what to take forward and the most likely market successes. For me, its been one of those how did I not see this before experiences.

This test, don't ask approach can do several important things. It helps ensure sustainability ideas are attractive and desirable to consumers as you develop them, reducing upfront investment costs in innovations, and reducing the risk of failure. This kind of testing can also help ensure more sustainable products have a greater chance of success in the market " a win-win-win for companies, consumers and the planet.


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