We sat down with Bridget O’Brien, a seasoned marketing executive who has led a diverse range of organizations through significant growth and transformation. Throughout her career, Bridget has accelerated the adoption of technology-based solutions through a deep understanding of consumers. In her current role as Chief Commercial Officer of CLYNK, a Greentech company that is transforming recycling for consumers, retailers, and beverage manufacturers, she finds herself once again on the forefront of significant consumer change.

What best practices can you share about changing consumer behavior to drive transformation across the different categories you’ve worked in?

Although I’ve had exposure across a variety of industries, the common thread between many of the companies I’ve worked for, like PTC, Fidelity, Vistaprint and CLYNK, are that they all leverage technology to drive a competitive advantage. Don’t get me wrong – technology itself doesn’t get credit for the win, but it does make overcoming the challenges associated with changing consumer behavior more achievable.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

There are no shortcuts when it comes to catalyzing significant consumer transformations. From my experience, best practice #1 is having a deep understanding of your target audience. I’ve found that many companies think they know their consumer but when probed, have a difficult time answering fundamental questions surrounding the hopes, desires, expectations and fears their “buyers” possess.

When I joined Vistaprint, the company relied heavily on incentives (often times considered a best practice) to drive adoption and behavior change. As the company grew, acquiring millions of new customers each year, we struggled to retain them.  We embarked on the most comprehensive market & customer study the company had ever executed. The results were game changing.  We learned that attritors cared about price, but they placed a greater value on service. The discounts alone were no longer effective at driving new behaviors.

Image courtesy of Safe Barriers

The second-best practice often times surfaces as part of your market and customer research and that pertains to identifying any consumer barriers to change. At Vistaprint, we served a potential market of 16+ million customers and learned that a large percentage of them had a very narrow view of what the brand had to offer. New positioning was required, followed by significant changes to our go-to-market strategy, product quality, depth of product offering, and merchandising. Most important we moved beyond a Do It Yourself/DIY model to also include Do It With Help and Do It For You. We also completely overhauled our messaging strategy and invested in the company’s first ever brand campaign where we saw significant impact on some of the company's weakest brand attributes of “highest quality” and “personal service.” The brand campaign resulted in significantly higher brand consideration and affinity.

The third-best practice is making the desired behavior easy and convenient to adopt. In my current role at CLYNK, I’ve observed firsthand how ease and convenience played a leading role in making the company’s consumer-friendly recycling option the fast-growing modality in the United States today. This is particularly important when it comes sustainability.

Image courtesy of CLYNK

In the 1970s, tax-supported curbside recycling programs were introduced, and in the late 80’s and 90’s the “innovation” in those programs was that they moved to single stream. Now, Americans could assuage their guilt with a wonderfully easy solution. With the collapse of single stream recycling, consumers were left at a loss. Many are blissfully unaware that what they are doing at curbside is ineffective. Others are aware that what they have is not working but they are not sufficiently motivated to do “hard” recycling. CLYNK’s solution was designed with the consumers’ needs in mind, specifically making it so easy and rewarding that a consumer would be crazy not to participate.

Overall, changing consumer behavior requires a strategic and multifaceted approach. By understanding your audience, identifying barriers to change, and making the desired behavior easy and convenient, you can increase the likelihood of success.

Sustainability is an area you are passionate about. As you look at that landscape, what are the top 3 consumer trends or insights that you see shaping that category?

The first trend is the activated “green” consumer. This has been a long time in the coming, but I can tell you with great confidence that we are now in the era of the mindful consumer.

In 2015, Texas A&M graduate student Christine Figgener recorded a video of her colleagues removing a straw lodged in a turtle’s nostril – a sight you simply can’t “unsee”.  The video went viral, and people became energized and galvanized into action around the slogan “skip the straw, save a turtle.” Plastic straws were in the crosshairs.

Image courtesy of YouTube

This trend has been fueled by videos, graphic images, and sobering impact statements that reveal the extent to which environmental waste has become a mainstay here and abroad. But the energy wasn’t just about litter and wildlife. The concern for the environment and about climate change is growing stronger every year. They help to substantiate the broader environmental issues described as global warming.

The American consumer is better informed on recycling topics than ever before, they are galvanized by the energy of younger generations who have been “raised on recycling” and who generally believe in holding big businesses accountable for the impact they have in the world. That same generation shares information across the globe, enabling higher levels of peer-education and best practice sharing/seeking than ever in history.

Green is finally cool.

Consumers are demanding more transparency and accountability from companies regarding their sustainability practices. They want to know how products are made, where the materials come from, and what the environmental impact is. This has led to a rise in eco-labeling and sustainability certifications, as well as an increase in corporate sustainability reporting. It has also led to the second trend of economic pressure coming from multiple angles. I’ve seen this trend unfold at CLYNK.

The function of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) is to make a positive impact, or in the case of beverage manufacturers, curtail a negative one. I highlight beverage manufacturers because single-use beverage containers make up 25% of overall packaging waste according to Eunomia’s report: 50 states of recycling. Although the major beverage companies have been making sustainability commitments for decades, the biggest breakthroughs have come in the past several years. This has been due to pressure from consumers and government officials, and interestingly enough, from the investment sector.

Image courtesy of Ball Corporation

In a now famous Letter to CEOs, Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, tells his clients that Sustainability will be Blackrock’s new investment standard. Further, he discloses, “we will be increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose."

Image courtesy of BlackRock

Consumers and recycling experts/champions are getting involved and advocating for reform. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a series of laws that establishes a system whereby producers own the problem of recycling products consumers no longer use. They have made their way to the United States and are quickly becoming part of the vernacular and language of recycling-based legislation. EPR legislation promises to close the window on “Sustainability Pledges” with no teeth.

Increased demand for eco-friendly products rounds out the third trend. Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of their purchases and are seeking out sustainable alternatives. This has led to a rise in demand for eco-friendly products such as reusable water bottles, bamboo toothbrushes, rechargeable batteries, and organic cotton clothing. It has also led to a rise in support of replacing the ubiquitous plastic grocery bag with cotton shopping bags.

Image courtesy of Mud Jeans

We also now have marketplaces such as Grove Collaborative where consumers can source planet-friendly household product, vetted, and curated by Grove Collaborative based on ingredient transparency, whether the product is cruelty-free, and is 100% plastic neutral. They work with brands who are addressing sustainable packaging and reducing single-use plastic.  While we are talking trends, it’s important to note that Grove Collaborative is a B-Corporation which means they must meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability, and balance profit and purpose. I strongly suspect the B-Corp movement will continue to grow in popularity, in spite of the challenges associated with becoming an accredited B-Corp.

Image courtesy of Grove Collaborative
There is great consumer interest in products that claim to be environmentally and socially responsible, but how do you get consumers to pay for it? Is there a brand you think that’s done that well?

As I mentioned earlier – we have entered the age of the mindful consumer, so it is no surprise that interest for products that are made with the environment in mind is on the rise. By and large, eco-friendly products are more expensive due to supply chain implications but the activated green consumer votes with their pocketbook. They feel good doing so, and the “investment” is worth the peace of mind of doing right by our planet.

Two recent studies focused on consumers and sustainability reveal some interesting statistics. In McKinsey’s report entitled Consumers care about sustainability – and back it up with their wallets (2/6/23), they cite brands with more sales from products making environmental, social, and governance-related claims enjoy greater loyalty. Further, brands that garner more than half of their sales from products making ESG-related claims enjoy 32 to 34 percent repeat rates.

Image courtesy of KPMG

KPMG’s Consumer Pulse Survey reveals that close to 40% of consumers say environmental sustainability is an important factor informing their purchase decisions; over 75 percent of these consumers are looking for environmentally friendly products and/or packaging. Restaurants, apparel, and personal care products are the categories for which consumers are most likely to choose a product or service based on social responsibility features.

How do you get them to pay for it? Consumers can sniff out marketing hyperbole. But when a company goes “all in”, like Patagonia, Seventh Generation or Ben & Jerry’s, meaning they authentically live, eat and breathe sustainability, consumers want to become loyal customers. They want to get behind brands that align with their own personal values and aspirations.

Having grown in a household with a “waste not, want not” mentality, this is all music to my ears. It’s heartening to see so many companies embrace ESG, and the momentum is palpable. But, if I had to chose one brand that has done this well, hands down it would be Patagonia. How many founders give away their ownership, dedicating all profits from the company to projects and organizations that will protect wild land and biodiversity and fight the climate crisis? Drop the microphone.

Image courtesy of Patagonia
Lynda Ferrari

Lynda is a consumer marketing expert with a track record of successful U.S. and global product launches. She has created new product innovations across consumer wellness, from personal care to digital health. She is a founding partner of Compass Marketing.

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