Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Social Marketing & Bottled Water

You Can Lead A Horse To Water...
I was chatting with a sustainability leader at a high tech company and she shared the challenge of eliminating bottled water.  That got me thinking about a way to engineer a campaign using principles from social marketing. The examples relate to switching from bottled water, but the principles apply to most change management activities.

A large part of becoming more sustainable is changing behavior and adopting of green practices. Even when well intentioned, making a change, whether at work or our personal lives, is challenging. This is regularly demonstrated each February when our new year’s resolutions start to wane.


One of the company’s green projects is to significantly reduce bottled water, which the company provides free. The workforce consists of technical professionals. The culture is consensus driven with few top-down mandates. It was inappropriate in this culture to remove bottled water and hence promotion was the key to adoption. 

Program To Date
Stainless steel canteens were distributed. The cost was justified due to the savings on bottled water reduction. A blind test taste by employees of filtered water and bottled water was held just prior to launch. Filtered tap water won. Despite these efforts, employees continued to drink bottled water.

The program launch was good --- a feeling of reciprocity was created by providing a high quality canteen free of charge. In the future, having the employees pledge to use canteens and order water pitchers for meetings may increase adoption. Rather than distribute anonymously, leverage employee interaction and ask the employee directly, “Will you use this canteen and order water pitchers?” In such circumstances, we of course will say “yes”, and the psychological benefit is that we become more committed. In addition to the verbal question, employees could complete a pledge by signing a form or electronically. See my earlier post on Hewlett-Packard adoption where a pledge process is an integral part of HP’s employee engagement process.

One other way to increase adoption is to ask employees why they think it is a good idea to switch to canteens. Those, who aren’t thrilled, are still able to share some reasons. With this approach, employees sell themselves. Publish the names of employees who committed to the new program to reinforce.  

Changing the default to support the desired new process accelerates adoption. For example, assume employees when they order water for meetings want pitchers rather than bottled water. Currently, the employee needs to request a pitcher, and many who would want to participate may just forget. Should an employee want bottled water, the employee would need to request specifically. Then a gentle reminder would be provided on the benefits of filtered tap water.

The canteen offers a marketing opportunity since it makes visible who is participating in the program. This type of viral marketing is one of the reasons that bottled water became popular in the first place. People drinking bottled water provided advertising just by using the product.

But the canteen for the same reason can also cause negative reinforcement when few people are using. To avoid negative advertising, it is critical to recruit peer leader(s) to support the new canteen publicly. Peer leaders who are known to be green will make it believable. These individuals should not be from management – unless representing the management peer group. Depending on the mix of employees several peer leaders to represent different segments may be required. This is analogous to Nike recruiting sports professionals from many different types of sports.

Avoid emphasizing poor adoption since most people will want to behave like their peer group and some who have adopted will stop, creating a downward spiral. Highlight peer-leaders at the beginning of the campaign. Once positive adoption has occurred, then shift gears and promote that the desired practice is now “normal” to encourage laggards to join their peers. A campaign such as “How do you use your canteen…. “ will reinforce.

Some social marketers use personalized data to encourage adoption. An example for this case would be to share the percentage of meetings on this floor, department or building that have eliminated bottled water. The dynamic is again peer group encouragement, social proof and competition. Those that are doing well should be encouraged to keep up the good work so they don’t backslide.

The taste test was also a clever idea --- the employees had confirmed that filtered water was delicious. This was a good use of social proof. Unfortunately, taste may not be the primary driver for water selection. Recall that in the 80’s, despite exhaustive test tastes proving that new Coke tasted better than the original, new coke was not accepted.

I suspect that part of the adoption issue is convenience. A bottle is “grab & go” without any planning; while a canteen needs to be brought to the meeting and occasionally cleaned. Along with the pitcher, reusable glasses will likely increase usage. This suggestion does not promote canteens, but it does support filtered water and eliminating bottled water, which is the end goal.

This is the approach that Google took. Awhile back when I chatted with Lacy Caruthers from Google, she shared that Googlers had suggested eliminating bottled water but there was discussion about best methods. They settled on providing reusable glasses and filtered water. The disposable / reusable glass generated a passionate debate, with detailed testing on environmental impact to settle the issue.

If the previous ideas don’t change the adoption rates, then a focus group may be helpful to understand the underlying reason. Returning to the new Coke example, although customers said they choose by taste, in that case, there was a nostalgic bond to original Coke that was not easily severed. It may be necessary to do some digging to understand the motivations. Once the true adoption drivers are uncovered, make an adjustment in the message or approach.

Other companies, once the taste, safety, convenience and other requirements are satisfied, may find a top-down approach is effective. In that case, cancel the bottled water service and live with the grumbling through the change period. To maintain goodwill, some of the techniques mentioned previously could make employees more accepting, even when mandated. This is similar to HP’s approach. HP did some marketing prior to its elimination of Styrofoam.


Bottled water is just one example of adoption, but the marketing approaches can be used more broadly:
  • Adopter publicly declares to make the change. Adopter provides reasons why this is a good idea and how to get program to work
  • Adoption is visible
  • Peer leaders are recruited who are believable and represent different segments of the employee population
  • New method becomes default – adopters need to opt out
  • When adoption is starting to take hold, reinforce that new method is the new “normal”, praise the adopters and encourage the laggards to get on-board

An update on progress of the great water challenge will be provided in a few months. With a little patience and marketing, the horse will eventually get thirsty…
Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive – 

Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini

Nudge – Improving Decision About Health, Wealth and Happiness Thaler and Sunstein

Marketing in the Public Sector – A roadmap for improved Performance 

Kotler & Lee – Excellent academic book by world’s most influential marketer

Related Posts
HP Lives Green - More on change management and employee engagement 

1 comment:

  1. Claudia,

    Great blog. I learned a couple lessons from this.