Who do I tell?

Who will appreciate knowing you are working to be sustainable and create a sense of place?

a young couple smiling and relaxing on a grassy hilltopContents

  1. Who is your target audience?
  2. ‘I care for the planet and society’
  3. ‘What’s in it for me?’
  4. ‘Not bothered’
  5. ‘We must follow green procurement requirements’


Who is your target audience?

There are many signs that consumers are changing. An increasing awareness of, and concern for, the planet’s health is everywhere - but the problem is too many contradictory messages.

Since the recession, consumer buying patterns have changed - they expect more for their money. But also there is more solidarity; they give more to charity than ever before and they are more aware that if someone is struggling, it isn’t necessarily their own fault.

Consumers want easy choices, but they feel they have been misled too many times. It’s not surprising they are confused about what is best to do and what will really make a difference.

It is unlikely that your business can survive if you only target the small percentage of conscientious consumers that are influenced by the good you do for the planet and society.

You need to think about how to tempt those consumers who will only buy a sustainable product if they like it better than other products on offer.

There is a market out there that is cynical, and you may fear putting them off. The key is to not make sustainability look threatening.

Customers can be divided into three main groups:

  1. "I care for the planet and society" (knowledgeable, willing to do research and pay extra)
  2. "not bothered" (cynical, travel to relax or for work, expect that the basics are covered but will not pay extra)
  3. "what's in it for me?" (seek different experiences, willing to buy 'sustainability'  if there is a clear personal benefit)

Your communications need to reflect who you are talking to. For example, if you wanted your customers to travel by public transport, you might tell the first group that it would reduce their CO2 emissions, the second that it would be more comfortable and enjoyable, and the third that it would be cheaper and more efficient.

In this way, try to use a variety of messages to attract people from each of the different consumer types.

“I care for the planet and society”

Tell them the difference you make.

These conscientious consumers actively seek green experiences as a continuation of their lifestyle at home. They will research widely before travelling, are knowledgeable about the places they visit and the things they want to do. They claim to be willing to pay more for a product that makes a difference.

Because they are knowledgeable and conscientious, they will tell the world if you are found out greenwashing - claiming to be sustainable on the back of tokenistic actions that make little difference. Substantiate your claims with detailed evidence of what you do.

The trouble is, only about 10% of consumers think this way, which may not be enough for your business to survive if you only target this group.

The trick is to capture this market without alienating the less-conscientious consumers.

All these statistics sound great! But there is a gap between what people say and what people do.

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Case study: Make green evident but not threatening

We differentiate ourselves without sounding worthy.

Olivia O’Sullivan is the General Manager of The Green House Hotel in Bournemouth, Dorset.

What we do: on the face of it our hotel is a beautiful, restored Victorian villa. From the outset it was important for us to convey that luxury and sustainability could go hand in hand. Our website provides information about all the sustainability practices we have put in place.

How we tell: We target discerning customers and those who are looking for responsible hotels – “serious about luxury, serious about sustainability”. The hotel and wedding markets are crowded, so emphasising sustainability makes this our unique selling point.

We use photos to show that the hotel offers luxury, and the text to speak about our sustainability values and reassure that being sustainable means that we care about our customer experience. We tell customers to dig a little deeper to find the sustainability evidence, and emphasise the external credibility of our work with the awards and rave reviews we receive.

We use personal messages to show the human connection of staying in a green hotel: “But the

aerial view of Bournemouth pier

last thing we want to do is lecture you about our environmental credentials. You won’t get any sermons at our luxury and boutique hotel front desk – just a warm, friendly and relaxed welcome”.

Our top tip: Be transparent and allow customers to know about you, so you can explain your values and show them you don’t compromise on quality or the guest experience.

“What’s in it for me?”

Tell them that sustainability = quality and gives them a better experience.

The “what’s in it for me” group makes up the majority of consumers. They are aware of the issues, but don’t go out of their way to act. They won’t look for sustainability information but they respond well to messages that show they can easily “do their bit” - or where they get a better product or service that happens to be sustainable.

Just as people forget to bring their stylish reusable bags to the supermarket, these travellers will book the brands they already know through their usual channels. Habit and convenience play a more important part in how they choose travel, leisure and tourism.

Price, location, convenience and brand still come first. But when all of these are equal, sustainability values and actions can differentiate a product.

Sustainability could be everywhere, from preserving the traditional architecture of your business to having solar panels, from showing proudly the authenticity and uniqueness of your sustainable practices to providing information about local activities and walks. But it is important to show not only your practices, but also how customers can benefit – they can learn history through your walls in a fun way.

“Not bothered”

Show them that you care, unobtrusively.

Many travellers just want to switch off. They have earned their right to relax or are too busy to care. They probably already expect you to be acting sustainably because of your size or location, or they simply don’t want to think about it.

This group is quite cynical - any claims of acting sustainably need to be substantiated with external verification. If only some of your actions are sustainable, it is less risky to not mention the “S” word, and to explain the individual things you do instead.

Sustainability actions will need to happen behind the scenes and your communication should focus on how you make things easier for them. Also, try to use different communication methods to attract a variety of people that could help you influence those who don’t care about your sustainable actions.

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Case study: Edutainment (educational entertainment)

We explain how sustainability improves your life, while having fun at the same time.

Peter Morris is the Head of PR and Campaigns of the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, a wetland conservation charity.

What we do: Wetlands are important because they are the primary source of drinking water for people and wildlife. Most of our nine wetland centres across the UK have treatment systems to preserve the wetlands and their wildlife. The centres also provide a nice day out for people to enjoy getting close to nature.

How we tell: We realise most people aren’t aware of the impacts of their actions, so we use clear, explanatory and engaging messages on site to help people understand through practical experience.

For example, our toilet message tells customers the importance of treating water for humans and wildlife alike with the “What happens to my water?” story. We explain how the on-site system to treat water works and how this same water is enjoyed by the wildlife that they can see and feed.

a swan gliding on water

Linking the story with the toilet they have just used increases the sense of ownership and the fact that daily actions have an impact.

It’s not about doom and gloom: visitors feeding rare geese and enjoying a pleasant day out reinforces the positive message of environmental preservation.

Our top tip: Put across attractive, visual messages for an active target audience and engage them by offering practical experiences. It’s better to put the messages right where the action is happening, and to explain the outcomes, so the customers can see their role during the process.

“We must follow green procurement requirements”

Corporate clients that book events, tourism or hospitality services (for example, conference venues, travel, accommodation) are guided by their corporate purchasing policies. These policies increasingly require companies to prove how sustainable they are before they can become a preferred supplier.

A report called “The State of Corporate Social Responsibility” from Meeting Professionals International (MPI) states:

“Adoption of CSR policies and initiatives within top-ranked, multinational companies has generated an expectation of CSR practice in all industries and at all levels.”

A Request for Proposal (RfP) is a document sent by companies to potential suppliers at the beginning of a procurement process for goods or services. RfP are used to gather information from different suppliers to assess competing bids. Increasingly, RfP include sustainability policies, carbon emissions, employee engagement, training, effect on local communities and human rights issues. The RfP relate to what happens inside the tourism business itself, but also to how their policies are cascaded down to their suppliers.

However there is no standardisation in what these RfP ask or how, or whether the questions refer to the overall company or an individual property/business unit. This is in part because there is no standardisation on how to evaluate most impacts. This is causing confusion - the hotel sector in particular is increasingly spending time completing more forms on sustainability practices for different potential clients.

Sustainability criteria are necessary to tender, but currently aren’t a major purchasing decision-maker for corporate clients. Most buyers give it some consideration rather than an actual score - however, its importance is growing year on year.

The outcome is that your business will be increasingly expected to demonstrate how you care for the environment and contribute to society as a pre-requisite to trade.

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Case study: get everybody involved

We get opinion leaders to do the marketing for us.

Brian Pearce is the Chair of Railworld Wildlife Haven, an educational and environmental charity in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

What we do: We are all volunteers and together we have transformed a former coal storage yard into an ‘entertain and educate’ local tourist attraction. Visitors find our rail history intriguing and they can explore and enjoy lovely walks while being able to study over 200 flora and fauna species.

How we tell: We have built relations with a number of companies and organisations that share our values. We encourage local and national leaders to organise ‘community team days’, so they can send their employees to help out. For example, we have received visits from the National Trust and Rotary International. When they come, they help us with work to improve our species’ habitats and we give presentations to inspire people to do good.

During these days we showcase our work and hope that it will motivate them to become members or to help promote what we do.

Thanks to these community days, people who weren’t previously interested in sustainability have learnt about us from well-known organisations, which is great marketing.

As Brian says, “I try to ‘influence those that instead of influence others!”

We have found this reinforces our more traditional communication methods such as the information on our website and in our centre. Opinion leaders tend to be very effective at pre-disposing the general public to consider us, even when they are not committed to sustainability. They introduce us at local events, and we take our brochures and talk to people directly. The relationship works really well.

Our top tip: Engage with opinion leaders who share your environmental values, so that they can convince less sustainably-committed people to participate. Others talking well about you is more convincing than your own printed materials.