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Show me the green.

by | Sep 7, 2015 | Planet Matters

Do environmentally-conscious consumers care what others think about their purchases? Probably. But why does it matter?

Ihave been listening to more and more podcasts as of late, something I attribute to an increased commute time and a need to hit the elliptical machine more often. As a result, I will be sharing some of the more interesting and useful things I take away from my time in car or on pedal.

Today, I am going to point you to an interesting episode from the Freakonomics Podcast, called Show and Yell. It’s actually a mashup of previous episodes, but since I never heard the original broadcasts, we’re just going to pretend this is completely fresh content, so play along if you’ve heard it already.

In part of the episode, the hosts talk about the concept of signaling, which is when a person undertakes certain behaviors to convey something about themselves to others. Usually it is meant to be some positive view of themselves that the signaler is trying to get across.

They talk to two researchers who wanted to test if people were buying Toyota Priuses to show others how environmentally conscious they were, something the researchers referred to as “conspicuous conservation”. In their work they looked at why so many more Priuses were being bought than other hybrids such as the Ford Focus and Honda Civic. They surmised that it was at least in part due to the fact that these other hybrids didn’t look much different from their non-hybrid counterparts, whereas the Prius is uniquely its own design and could be readily recognized as a Prius when seen on the road. Therefore, if you’re trying to advertise how green you are, why hide it in a car that may or may not be a hybrid?

The researchers also looked at how the location of a person would affect how and if they signalled their conspicuous conservation. They noted that if a person lived in an area where being environmentally responsible carried a lot of importance in the minds of citizens, then there would be incentive to undertake signalling through a Prius purchase. But if they lived in a place where less concern was given to the environment, then trying to signal to others that they were green-minded would carry less social reward and therefore a conspicuous Prius purchase (say that fast) wouldn’t be as desirable.

So, what can we take away from this signalling behavior and Prius power?

Well, first of all, in my mind, if you are concerned with the environment as I am, then the most important thing is that people act more environmentally responsible, and the reasons why they do matters less so. But, as an amateur social scientist, I actually am interested in the why and even more in how this signalling can be used in our work.

I see great opportunities for smart business people who recognize how crucial it is to be looking at their marketplace as not some broad demographic segments, but rather as small, unique communities of shared values, viewpoints, and social structures. Crafting a smart strategy that makes using your product and service or joining your effort, or whatever, as a socially desirable signal, is a BIG thing. In fact reaching that level puts you into the envious position of having people drawn to you instead of you always reaching out to them.

Of course, that leads to the issue of once you get to that point, how do you stay there. But that will be for another time. For now, work to create more narrow and detailed descriptions of your buyers and users. Identify the types of signals they try to send and how they do it. Then finally, find ways to piggyback off of those or create a new signal of your own.

If you need help with any of that let me know. Tomorrow, as my fitness regiment carries on, we’ll look at another recent podcast, this time discussing how sounds play a role in the design of products.

Feature Photo Credit: By Beth and Christian

Robert Westfall

Robert is a writer, behavorial researcher and decision-making consultant. He is the founder of Instinct, a firm specializing in helping organizations be more human focused and planet conscious.  You can learn more about his work at www.TheHumanInstinct.com and follow him at twitter.com/WeAreInstinct

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