The "Dos and Don’ts" of marketing your circular products and services
Until recently, we have lived in a linear economic system that operates under a “take, make, and dispose” philosophy, which ends in waste. In contrast, circular economies develop services and products that are guided by three main principles: design out waste and pollution, extend the life cycle of materials and products, and regenerate ecosystems. Growing concerns about climate change, dwindling natural resources, and sustainable global development have made concepts like circular design and circular economies not only innovative solutions but also strategic business initiatives.
Most discussion and research around circular economies has largely focused on the service and business model changes necessary to drive this transition, but little attention has been paid to how these companies can motivate acceptance of, and demand for, circular products and services. This list of dos and don’ts is a starting point for companies looking to improve communications regarding circular economy and sustainability—or companies that are communicating about their circular ambitions, products, and services to their customers for the first time.
There is a huge opportunity for businesses to better communicate these new concepts, and engage consumers in recognizing and changing their purchase patterns for more sustainable consumption. Furthermore, timely and on-point messaging keeps customers engaged with your company’s brands.
Help consumers understand their new role in the circular economy and provide incentives to take on that new role.
In a linear economy, the consumer is the last link in the supply chain before a product is either trashed or recycled. Consumers’ participation in this economy is limited to purchase and disposal of that product. In contrast, in a circular economy, every actor, especially the consumer, is responsible for recuperating materials for reuse and recycling.
A circular economy requires a significant shift in a consumer’s mind to increase their level of participation and to adopt new behaviors, such as: returning products, paying for access rather than ownership, and reusing materials. To support this behavior change, companies need to explicitly communicate their expectations of consumers after the product or service’s use phase. It should also be convenient or beneficial for consumers to take those actions after the use phase. For example, some Walmart stores have ecoATMs, where customers can drop off electronics and get instant cash.
An Ellen MacArthur Foundation study found that the number-one factor driving consumers’ willingness to resell, donate, or recycle goods was convenience. Consumers cared less about getting the most money for their electronics or clothing than the ease of the take-back program. The circular economy can increase the touch points associated with the customer experience. Creating positive experiences for customers at the end of the use phase by providing the right incentives to act has the additional benefit of building stronger relationships with customers and provides an extra opportunity to offer new services, products, or information that keeps customers engaged with your brand.
Support new behavior by communicating with your customers through the use phase.
The biggest role that marketers play in building a circular economy is communicating in a way that changes consumer behavior at the purchase and use phases. Email marketing, brand-specific apps, and social media have made communicating with consumers after the point of sale easier than ever. Brands can support consumers’ behavior changes by communicating with them at key moments during the product or service life cycle. For example, more denim companies are now leasing jeans out to their customers. If a company knows that jeans are most likely to need mending after 18 months, they can send out communications to customers who have been leasing one pair for that long and remind them of the free repair services they offer. Communicating with customers during the use phase can encourage customers to engage in behaviors that extend the utility of a product or repair rather than replace their items.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found that customers prefer to receive a few text messages from their product reminding them that it needs service or repair, rather than a call from a retailer. Rather than sending a message from your marketing team, frame your message so that it comes from the product directly. This builds connections between your customers and your products—and when customers care about their belongings more, they tend to keep them longer. Transitioning to a circular economy also hinges on our ability to undo the prolific shopping mentality of “buy, dispose, repeat” and replace it with a more thoughtful shopper mindset.
Don’t lose your customer to language.
Social marketing research shows that people rarely shift their behavior as a result of the presentation of information, but a blend of rational and emotional appeals is more effective. Don’t get bogged down in sustainability jargon and lose people to facts. Circular marketers are better served building strong brands through cultural appeal and emotion-based campaigns.
The words you use to describe your product and service matter, too. WRAP found that certain words had negative connotations to consumers. A “leasing service” was associated with lower income, but framing that exact same service as a club that customers paid to gain access to generated a much more positive response. Knowing what matters to your customers and how they want to be perceived should dictate the words and language you use.
Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.
As I’ve said in other posts, we can’t just shop ourselves into a healthier planet. At a certain point, we need to be honest with ourselves and our customers that the perpetual consumption of goods and services is currently coming at a cost to our planet—energy to store data is the fastest-growing contributor. Very few brands are encouraging their customers to consume less or more consciously, but if circular marketers aren’t going to be the ones to do it, who will? Until your company is completely circular or we live in a completely circular economy, the onus is on the most responsibly minded business leaders to speak up about the elephant in the room. We have a consumption problem, and unless we drastically change how we make, produce, and dispose of our products, we aren’t going to be able to sustain our projected consumption levels in the upcoming decades.
Make and talk about your kick-ass product or service.
At the end of the day, it isn’t consumers’ responsibility to support and grow a circular economy. A circular economy needs to support consumers who are just trying to live their lives. Despite shoppers’ most noble intentions, research shows that price, quality, and social value are the three primary drivers dictating purchase. There is no replacement for a good product or service—and companies offering the best are the ones that will win in the market.
You don’t even need to use the words “circular economy” in your communications. The majority of consumers don’t know or don’t mind. They want you to solve their pain points. The most effective circular products and services address a specific customer need and put the consumer’s benefit at the heart of their services and communications. Make an amazing product and service that just so happens to be circular in nature, and the clicks and buys will follow.