Can marketing turn beverage consumers into unconscious environmentalists?

Ben Cooper asks if companies can use their marketing muscle to nudge consumers into making greener choices in the beverage aisle - whether they realise it or not.

A major report on food security, published by US-based environmental think tank the World Resources Institute (WRI) in July, offers a dizzying array of scientific evidence on sustainable production. But it also suggests that solutions for changing patterns of consumption need to be drawn from the world of FMCG marketing.

Acknowledging that information labels and education campaigns have limited effectiveness in changing buying habits, the report looked at how marketers across different consumer goods sectors shape shopping behaviour, incorporating these techniques into a suite of complementary strategies.

Only one of the four strategies relates to actions governments can take to change social norms. The rest are focused on marketing techniques, such as merchandising, enhancing affordability or presenting a new compelling benefit.

Marketing trumps education in changing consumer habits

Clearly, these are not revolutionary ideas but the key point is that changing consumer habits is going to be more about marketing than it is about "education", as Richard Waite, associate at WRI, emphasised at the report's launch: "We've learned that it's not enough just to drive more information and education to consumers, telling people this food is better for you or this food is better for the planet. In the US, we've had nutrition labels for decades and we're still grappling with high rates of obesity. So, we need a broader and more sophisticated set of tools and we need this to be from marketing science and behavioural science."

While market research consistently shows sustainability issues are featuring ever more prominently in consumer decisions, the report suggests the tendency for consumers to be wedded to established shopping habits remains a significant challenge. "What ends up in the shopping cart is usually based on habit and unconscious mental processing rather than on rational, informed decisions," the report states.

Spurring consumers into changing ingrained behaviour requires innovation and creativity. The same can be said when challenging established norms and traditions, and no category illustrates this more vividly than wine.

A challenge of persuasion for wine consumers

Developing more sustainable packaging is a way companies across all consumer goods sectors can reduce their environmental footprint, particularly in relation to GHG emissions. However, persuading wine consumers to switch from the 75cl glass bottle to formats such as bag-in-box is an extremely daunting challenge.

At a UK seminar in June hosted by Chilean winery Concha y Toro, sustainability manager Valentina Lira pointed to the progress made in making bottles lighter. CyT began switching to lighter weight (13-15% lighter than standard) bottles in 2010 and by last year had extended this programme to 98% of the portfolio, resulting in a CO2 reduction of 14,127 tons, equivalent to 14m bottles of wine. The next generation of lightweight bottle now being developed will be around 6% lighter still, Lira added.

Bag-in-box offers a 55% reduction in GHG emissions per litre against a standard 75cl glass bottle

However, with 42% of the company's GHG emissions coming from bottling and packaging, and a further 20% from distribution, Lira said developing more sustainable packaging represents a major innovation challenge for the company.

Also speaking at the seminar was Linda Karlsson, sustainability manager at VCT Nordic, who explained how a highly-regulated retail market has allowed Scandinavian monopolies to drive adoption of bag-in-box (BIB). BIB offers a 55% reduction in GHG emissions per litre against a standard 75cl glass bottle, according to CyT research.

Glass bottles now account for only 35% of wine sales at Swedish monopoly Systembolaget. But, in an illustration of the higher carbon cost, they account for 84% of packaging-related CO2 emissions. In less-regulated markets, boosting consumer uptake of more sustainable packaging formats is far more challenging.

Greencroft’s carbon neutrality and a new outlook on bulk shipping

CyT, which launched a new corporate strategy on sustainability last year, has sought to reduce the carbon impact of the 75cl bottle by shipping in bulk and bottling in the UK. Around 48 million bottles out of total UK volumes of 80 million are handled by its UK bottler Greencroft. With its new Greencroft Two state-of-the-art bottling facility due to come on-stream next year, Greencroft is looking to increase the volume it handles for Concha y Toro to 80 million bottles.

Bulk importing has become increasingly common in the UK and elsewhere over the past decade, with sustainability considerations, allied with improved margins, a key driver behind the change.

You can send your wine to us and out again without any addition to your carbon footprint

"We're doing quite well at attracting customers because we're effectively a carbon-neutral process," Adam Black, director of energy at Greencroft, told the seminar. "You can send your wine to us and out again without any addition to your carbon footprint."

Investing in sustainability, therefore, offers Greencroft "straight, commercial, competitive advantage", Black added. Notable investments include three on-site 500kW EWT wind turbines. These generate up to six million kWh of electricity a year. As the company only requires around 42% of this, Greencroft can feed the surplus back to the national grid, further enhancing cost-efficiency.

Technological advances mean bulk shipping no longer has the automatic associations with low quality it did in the past. Nevertheless, most wine companies prefer that consumer awareness about UK bottling is rather sketchy. It is not something a brand is likely to draw attention to and relatively few consumers look on the back label to find out where a wine was bottled. This means consumers are buying a more sustainable packaging format without being aware of its lower emissions profile.

Consumer uptake more vital than the method of persusasion

As the WRI report points out, a sustainability or health attribute need not be the factor which prompts consumers to alter set buying habits. Indeed, sometimes minimising disruption is a more effective approach.

The current strong growth being seen in the canned wine market illustrates this perfectly. Aluminium is a lightweight material, with very high recycling rates, making cans far more efficient than bottles in terms of carbon emissions. Much of the marketing for the many new wine-in-can products hitting the market is based around attributes such as convenience, being great for picnics, pack size or fun, lifestyle messaging designed to appeal to the younger drinkers who are primarily fuelling the growth.

Raising consumer awareness around sustainability is clearly important but in this instance associations with the doom and despond of climate change might be a distraction or even detract from the proposition. With regard to healthier diets or sustainable packaging, it is the outcome that is most important. Consumer uptake is vital but how they come to do so is less critical.

This article originally appeared on just-drinks

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