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Everyone Else is Doing It

Marketers can more effectively promote sustainable decision-making by telling their audiences about the sustainable actions of others

Leveraging Social Norms to Drive Sustainable Decision-Making

Consumers are increasingly aware of the harmful effects of throwaway culture, but haven’t yet translated this awareness to sustainable buying decisions. So how can marketers more effectively promote sustainable decision-making? You can tell your audience about the sustainable actions of others.

Katherine White (formerly at Simon Fraser University) and Bonnie Simpson (formerly at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business) investigated strategies to effectively persuade consumers to make more sustainable actions. Researchers conducted four studies, using a combination of questionnaires, laboratory tests and in situ-behavioural observations. Studies were conducted on 676 households and more than 600 individuals.

Three Marketing Strategies for Sustainability

Marketers commonly use three strategies for persuading their audience to adopt sustainable behaviour:

  1. Descriptive appeals: Describing what others are doing.

  2. Benefit appeals: Highlighting the benefits of an action.

  3. Injunctive appeals: Highlighting what others think one should do.

The most effective strategy for changing consumer behaviour targets the audience. Specifically, marketers typically target communications at either:

  1. Individuals: For example, “You can help protect local forests.” An example of this is the Weekend to End Breast Cancer’s You can do this campaign.

  2. Collectives: For example, “Together, we can change the world.” An example of this is the Canadian Cancer Society’s Together we can make cancer history campaign.

When marketers use individual-focused messaging, consumers are most likely to adopt a sustainable activity if the message uses a descriptive or benefit appeal. For messaging targeted at a collective, researchers suggest using either descriptive or injunctive appeals. Note that descriptive appeals are effective for both audiences.

Applying the Marketing Implications

When marketing your new green product or service, first identify your target audience, then leverage the appropriate marketing strategy.


Use these findings to encourage your consumers towards more sustainable behaviour. If in doubt, tell your consumers what everyone else is doing—they’re likely to follow suit.

White, K, & Simpson, B 2013, When Do (and Don’t) Normative Appeals Influence Sustainable Consumer Behaviors?, Journal Of Marketing, 77, 2, pp. 78-95, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 20 December 2013.

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