Sticky

Capitalising on Covid: Taking green travel mainstream

How can a downtrodden travel industry translate positive consumer sentiment for the green agenda into sector-saving behaviour?

Cast your mind back to those surreal, early weeks of the global shutdown. Look hard enough and somewhere, amid the collective gloom, panic and confusion, momentary cause for optimism could be found.

As travel all but ground to a halt, some visibly recuperative effects on the environment were brought to the world stage through a procession of heat maps and before-and-after lockdown images of iconic locations. They demonstrated for one, that air quality had – temporarily at least – improved, and gave us a tangible snapshot of what sustainable success could look like.

Carbon emissions dropped sharply, global heating to a lesser extent. Elsewhere bicycle sales soared, wildlife thrived. New habits were formed. A green agenda re-energised.

Of course these shards of light, dazzling as they were, were cast against a dull backdrop. A global society left stranded, unable to indulge its shared passion for travel. An inevitable and dramatic decline in operator revenues followed, leading to losses which have already proved unsustainable for some. In April 2020, the OGA reported that the number of flights in Europe fell by 90%, and the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) estimated in August that 18% of the UK’s travel industry jobs had already been lost.

Now, despite widespread positivity around effective Covid vaccines, winter is here and ABTA says lockdown 2.0 could “destroy” the UK’s travel industry, leading to hundreds of thousands of further losses – with the sector entering what it called “complete shutdown” on November 5.

So in the face of such immediate danger, with livelihoods on the line, how can the industry ensure that burgeoning momentum toward ethical, environmentally-conscious travel remains a priority? How can chaos in the sector be harnessed to accelerate an environmental agenda that remains imperative for future generations?

SHIFTing perceptions of sustainable travel

A key problem facing sustainable travel trailblazers remains: while consumers report favourable attitudes toward pro-environmental behaviours, they often don’t act on them.

The end-game is universally coveted, but the short-term motivators for consumers are largely absent.

In 2019, the American Marketing Association (AMA) designed a ‘SHIFT framework’ published in its Journal of Marketing, exploring the behavioural science at play in nudging consumers to be more sustainable by addressing the “attitude–behaviour gap”.

Through their review of hundreds of the most sourced academic papers on the subject, its authors were able to identify five broad routes to encouraging sustainable behaviour –neatly labelled SHIFT:

Social influence – the effect of social norms, identities and desirability on behaviour

Habit formation – forming new habits is a critical component to behavioural change

Individual self – self-interest and self-concept are powerful behavioural influencers

Feelings and cognition – negative and positive emotions can impact behaviours

Tangibility – the ability, or lack of, to see immediate benefits can affect behaviour

So how might these five core elements become relevant in a resurfacing, Covid-era travel landscape? We’ve applied our own thoughts to this unique curation of decades of key thinking to offer some answers…  

We hate being pigeon-holed, but like it or not most consumers thrive on the sense of identity which comes from being a member of a group – the in-crowd if you like. We’re more likely to engage in sustainable actions if in-crowd members are doing it too.

Social influence: Engage the in-crowd

The phenomenon of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ may be over 100 years old, but there’s nothing dated about the power that perceived ‘social norms’ have on influencing behaviour.

Few things impact our behaviour like the actions and expectations of others, and what we grow to think of as ‘socially appropriate’ typically leads to widespread shifts in public behaviour – think littering, composting, recycling – as the AMA authors chronicle.

We hate being pigeon-holed, but like it or not most consumers thrive on the sense of identity which comes from being a member of a group – the in-crowd if you like. We’re more likely to engage in sustainable actions if in-crowd members are doing it too.

Of course, once part of the ‘pro-environmental travel’ ingroup, members don’t want to see it outperformed by other groups. Especially those they want no association with.

Travel marketers can use these strong notions of social identity and ingroup identification to their advantage – not only by strengthening allegiances, but even sparking good-natured challenges between competing groups. Competition between cities and areas, businesses and organisations, perhaps, played out without resorting to aggressive, ‘name and shame’ tactics. Rather campaigns that focus on the positives, singling out leading regions (for example in EV take-up) and encouraging their neighbours to catch up.

The AMA paper draws on the power of keeping actions public, in the social eye. Consumers are more likely to act in the ‘socially-desirable’ manner when they know others can see and judge their actions, it notes.

A perfect illustration of this theory at play in wider marketing is the annual Poppy Appeal. People are proud to be associated with the honourable cause – but would the same volume of donations be achieved if this charitable behaviour wasn’t so obviously flagged to others?

Changing habits is tricky. Broadly there are two ways to do it – either by disrupting ‘bad’ habits or reinforcing ‘good’ ones

Habit formation: Use disruption, to disrupt

Habits, by definition, are things we do without much thought. Unfortunately, too many of our most automatic behaviours have a negative impact on the environment. In travel this could mean driving when we could walk, cycle or use public transport. Or choosing to fly domestically, instead of driving or taking the train or coach.

Changing habits is tricky. Broadly there are two ways to do it – either by disrupting ‘bad’ habits or reinforcing ‘good’ ones, the AMA paper notes.

Any disruption to normal life, in which unconscious behaviors are suddenly made more difficult, can create ideal conditions for habitual change. For example, the ban on non-essential road journeys issued during the country’s first national lockdown saw an estimated 200% rise in cycling. When cycle retailers reopened physically, many reported being unable to keep up with the pent-up demand.

Now is the time for low-emission personal transportation vehicle manufacturers (including EVs, bikes, electric scooters and e-bikes) to pounce on circumstance and keep this tide turning. Messaging should focus explicitly on the health and safety benefits of individual travel which relate to the current situation. There’s also much scope to push the advantages of new cycle lanes, the health benefits associated with cycling (poor cardio-vascular health has been linked to increased susceptibility to the coronavirus), and crucially, the short-term avoidance of close-proximity public transport.

Triumph is one brand looking to capitalise on habit discontinuity, with its out of home ‘Tubeless Travel’ advert in London. Tubeless Travel plays on the idea that riding a motorcycle is a far more enjoyable alternative to travelling via the London Underground in the current climate, while the motorcycle highlighted also uses tubeless tyres.

As a brand committed to its own electric future, Triumph’s campaign and crucially the opportunistic way it targets a disruption to pre-conditioned habit is something the wider sector should take note of.
 

Marketers should never attack those making unsustainable choices, but work delicately instead to improve the desirability of the more sustainable choice.

Individual self: Tweak the ‘traveller’ identity

Each of us has a self-concept. Typically a positive idea of who we are and just as crucially, who we’d like to be seen as. We regularly buy things that help us project this idealised image to the world.

As the AMA points out, change threatens this self-concept. Our strong desire to maintain a positive image of ourselves is matched by the defensive reaction we show upon learning that our consumer behaviour has negative side effects.

Someone who, above all else, likes to be seen as a worldly traveller, for example, may well know the negative impact regular air travel has on the environment, but actively avoids sustainable behaviour change and minimises its importance internally.

So the challenge here is to ‘positively associate sustainable behaviours with the self-concept’. In other words, find ways to make eco-friendly travel an intrinsic quality of that traveller identity – creating fresh opportunities to target a currently stranded segment.

Marketers should never attack those making unsustainable choices, but work delicately instead to improve the desirability of the more sustainable choice. To recolour pre-conceived connotations of sustainability that to some remain snobby, condescending, even hippie-like.

This is also a window of opportunity to appeal to those who don’t often make sustainable choices, but in the current climate may be being forced to – our new cyclists for example. By affirming and endorsing that behaviour, rather than negatively judging the alternative, you may convert an accidental adopter into a lifetime repeat customer.

The ‘Escape the Everyday’ campaign from Visit Britain shows shades of this technique.  Launched in September 2020, the initiative encourages domestic travel, targeting those with a ‘pent-up desire to escape and for freedom following months of lockdown’.

The campaign reveres escapism in the same way it’s more commonly promoted in international travel advertisement – its toolkit advocating ‘crowd-free bucket-list experiences’, ‘off-the-beaten-path experiences’ and ‘gourmet getaways’. These are staple motivators for our worldy traveller to navigate the globe, but here they’re confidently told their everyday routine can be escaped here, at home – bringing similar experiential benefits to them as a traveller, and with far less impact on the environment.

Feelings and cognition: Strike a balance

When it comes to the trade off between appealing directly to a consumer’s heart or their brain – the AMA paper argues both have their place, but people are only likely to take one of the two different routes to action at a time.

‘Fear appeals’ may be fairly common in campaigns relating to sustainability – but research suggests only a moderate approach to fear (with information about actions to take) can ever be truly effective. Overplaying the consequences of not making a particular shift can result in denial; while underplaying them or being uncertain can just lead to apathy. And the same can largely be said of employing guilt or sadness in marketing techniques.

Potentially an even greater well to tap into is that familiar ‘warm glow’ sensation. Various cited papers suggest consumers are ‘more inclined to engage in pro-environmental actions when they derive some hedonic pleasure or positive affect from the behaviour’ – with positive emotions such as joy and pride shown to influence consumer intentions.

Then there’s the cognitive mesaaging, the things our audiences process through reasoning, rather than emotion. It’s important to recognise that, while we want to convey as much information about behaviours and their consequences as possible, ‘information overload’ can actually weaken our case.

Some work cited in the AMA paper also suggests that too much detailed knowledge can backfire. ‘Those with the highest levels of science literacy display more ideology-reinforcing bias than their counterparts… their science knowledge making them better able to support their own pre-existing viewpoints.’ Sometimes, it seems, simplicity is king.

Perhaps the gold standard for marketers hoping to evoke emotion and make people think, without over-egging the pudding, can be found in the likes of this Nissan LEAF Polar bear advert which, without words, provokes a memorable response.

People want to fly to a Spanish resort now. Asking consumers to swap the Mediterranean for Morecambe because of ecological benefits for future generations, is a hard sell.

Tangibility: Draw on the here and now

Sustainable consumer behaviour has a problem with tangibility. In making the more sustainable choice, we often have to put aside more immediate benefits in favour of ill-defined positives for times we’ll never know.

People want to fly to a Spanish resort now. Asking consumers to swap the Mediterranean for Morecambe because of ecological benefits for future generations, is a hard sell.

And while there are ways to make the benefits of sustainable choices more tangible – think vivid imagery, compelling narrative, scientific remodelling – could the best strategy for inspiring green behaviour in the current climate be to actually promote the intangibles?

By intangibles, we’re talking about those money-can’t-buy indescribables; the feelings associated with doing something, rather than the stats-based certainties. Reconnecting with family. Enjoying friends again. Rediscovering nature. Sustainable by their very nature, these intangibles leave no negative ecological impact, and are near-enough universally valued.

The summer of 2020 brought a much-publicised ‘staycation’ boon, with millions unexpectedly staying put on these shores – many doubtless surprised by how much a holiday is defined by its intangibles, rather than its destination.

Travel marketers can capitalise on this revelation – reminding holidaymakers of the restorative power lockdown had on our relationships, not just with others, but ourselves.

Consumers didn’t miss out, they gained something. 

The National Trust’s ‘Everyone needs nature’ campaign draws heavily on this concept –  allows people to ‘take some time to pause, make memories with loved ones in places teeming with life and ultimately feel calmer through the beautiful outdoors’.

It’s strategies like these – not those attempting to highlight the distant and scary effects of unsustainable choices – which, for now at least, carry more weight.

‘How to SHIFT Consumer Behaviors to be More Sustainable: A Literature Review and Guiding Framework’ can be read in full here.

If you’d like to talk to us about a business challenge or campaign, please get in touch.

Share this article

X

Get in touch