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20 November 2012

How do brands choose a design for sustainable living?


By Ian Birkett, Corporate Culture 

The likes of Unilever and Marks & Spencer are amongst the ranks of blue-chip brands looking to bring sustainability firmly into the centre of their long-term business plans.

Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and Marks & Spencer’s Plan A set out their visions for helping consumers live more sustainable lives. Furthermore, these blueprints highlight how they are more responsibly using vital resources such as water and energy in their manufacturing processes.

These are just two examples of big business acknowledging the hot topics of sustainability and changing consumer behaviour. Long-term success and sustainability are becoming inextricably linked; firms are now more forward-looking as they seek to protect resources and their markets by scanning decades ahead, rather than focussing solely on 12-month balance sheets. But how are they using design in this process?

Design has a crucial role to play in helping people make small changes to their lives that collectively have a major effect on their world. Sometimes it’s a case of presenting consumers with a new campaign or concept they won’t have thought of; but just as often these days they have already committed to making changes, and so brands must design products to meet that mindset.

Take the first instance: persuading people about the benefits of behaving in a different way.

Levi's 511 Commuter Clothing range

Showerpooling is a new initiative from Axe (known in the UK as Lynx) asking people to shower together to save water. This campaign not only highlights the benefits of taking action, it’s done in a fun way, giving consumers another reason to get involved. Meanwhile, the Axe work also highlights the fact that sustainability doesn’t just run through a company’s business plan - in this case Unilever’s - it is also present in brand campaigns.

Today, more and more people are living more sustainably already. They require new product lines to help them do that. A good example is Levi’s 511 commuter clothing. As people get out of cars, buses and trains and jump onto their bikes, the range has been designed specifically to suit cyclists.

Regardless of a brand’s ultimate goal, any design project aimed at shifting commercial or consumer behaviour needs to be founded on one key thing: simplicity. It must communicate the benefits of taking action in a way that is impactful yet extremely easy to understand. It needs to be engaging enough to make someone think ‘why don’t I?’ rather than ‘why should I?’ so the message has to fit into their lives. We designed the ‘Recycle Now’ logo for WRAP to do just that: 10 years after its launch it is used widely on packaging, has a good reputation amongst retailers and more than 70% recognition among UK consumers.

Contrast this approach with that of brands and creatives who design campaigns to sell more products. That does have its place, of course: who can say that an outrageously throwaway commercial like Chicken Tonight didn’t have an effect on consumers? But behaviour-changing design predominantly comes from the brand strategy - and that new-found necessity for looking 20 or 30 years into the future - rather than product-based creative, which often involves devising an abstract or tangential idea then pinning it back to the strategy to boost short-term sales.

There are undoubtedly strategic differences when designing for behaviour change, but the process does share similarities with selling brands: give consumers a compelling reason to act or buy. Behaviour change can appear a dry subject for designers. But the business community’s acknowledgement that sustainability needs to be embedded in consumer-facing brands, as well as internal mission statements, means campaigns are more exciting for consumers, more valuable for business and more rewarding for the design industry.


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