Can design alter consumer behaviour for the better?

Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan and Marks & Spencer’s Plan A set out both companies’ visions for helping consumers live more sustainable lives, whilst also showcasing their plans for responsible use of vital resources such as water and energy in their manufacturing processes.

Ian Birkett
Ian Birkett

These are just two examples of big businesses acknowledging that it’s time to do more than pay lip-service to 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 could collectively have a major effect on the world around them. Sometimes it’s a case of presenting consumers with a new campaign or concept they won’t have thought of; but often consumers 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. 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 sustainable lifestyles. 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.

Wrap's Recycle Now logo, designed by Corporate Culture's Ian Birkett
Wrap’s Recycle Now logo, designed by Corporate Culture’s Ian Birkett

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 simply 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.

While there are strategic differences in design for behaviour change, it does share similarities with selling brands: give consumers a compelling reason to act or buy. Behaviour change may appear to be a dry subject for designers; but the business community’s realisation that sustainability needs to be embedded in brands, not just corporate mission statements, means the work being created is more exciting for consumers, more valuable for business and more rewarding for the design industry.

Ian Birkett, creative director, Corporate Culture

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