The ‘S’ Word: Podcast Blog

Written by Natalia Bus | 14th October 2022


In the latest instalment of our Lab Leaders podcast, we welcome Walnut UNLIMITED’s Board Director, Dr. Cristina de Balanzo, and Research Director, Andreea Tarasescu.

Together, they attempt to explore the tension building around the communication of brands’ sustainability narratives – highlighting the benefits of a positive, human-led approach. See where the discussion took them below.

What attitudes are you seeing from consumers surrounding sustainability?

Cristina: The consumer research that we carried out at the beginning of the year gave us a lot of hope because the problem we’ve faced before is a lack of urgency from consumers. But recent circumstances, especially in the UK with the summer we’ve just had, have really touched our hearts and minds. People are now fully aware that this is not for future generations, but for us to solve.

Andreea: From a behavioural science perspective, we know that the more tangible an issue becomes and the more we can see the impact in our day-to-day lives, the more we pay attention. There’s an attentional bias here. With the news full of doom and gloom, I think that brands have an opportunity to bring some positivity and hope for the future.


Can you talk us through the key takeaways of your research for brands?

Cristina: Front and centre was the sense that brands need to take a positive tone in messaging because a lot of people have the motivation to act. In fact, a lot of consumers are on the lookout for more sustainable options and offerings.

Despite this, sustainability is a journey and not everyone is in the same place. Some people are primed and ready for change, some still contemplating, while others remain steeped in denial. Each of these groups requires different marketing strategies.

Lastly, we saw what we already knew – that greenwashing is top of mind for everyone. Brands need to be careful that their activations are truly embedded into their organisation, rather than being opportunistic or commercially driven.


Do brands seem to understand the different group profiles and their attitudes towards sustainability?

Andreea: Some do, and some don’t. But brands need to recognise that there will be different types of comms and nudges for consumers, depending on what stage of the journey they’re on.

When it comes to getting under the skin of these multiple audiences, we can use a variety of techniques. For example, coupling implicit data with behavioural science gives us an in-depth view into what levers to pull with each of these segments when building comms.

What’s more, looking at segments in this way means that we can track how consumer attitudes change over time and the effectiveness of the brand communications, strategies, or campaigns we put in place.


So, brands need to take their audiences on a behavioural journey? Once they’ve done this type of research to understand their audience, what’s next?

Andreea: One example worth mentioning here is around health and sustainable diets. We’ve done a lot of work with the likes of the Institute of Grocery Distribution, but also with several chain retailers and large manufacturers to explore how we can encourage people to be more sustainable in their food choices.

With plant-based consumption, we managed to show that while a growing number of people are now vegan or vegetarian, this remains a small proportion of the population. So, there is an opportunity to understand the segments that aren’t convinced by plant-based food but are reducing or at least thinking about reducing their meat intake.

For these consumers, it’s all about being tempted or encouraged in the right direction, thinking about everything from digital to point of sale communications and the types of messaging that will highlight the benefits rather than the need to take meat out of their diets. When we talk about what we shouldn’t do, we get into the area of human loss aversion, which basically asserts that as humans, we want to avoid losing at all costs. Therefore, being positive and instilling hope from the top down is crucial.


For brands who may be worried about putting a foot wrong, is there anything they can do to avoid making mistakes?

Cristina: There are techniques and tools that brands should be using to figure out what to say and how to say it to reduce the risk of going wrong. For instance, looking at behaviour change and targeting segments with specific messaging.

They should also consider different attitudes, which is where implicit testing comes in. By looking at the levels of conviction behind each claim that consumers make, we can predict how they truly feel about something, and align activations accordingly.

Are there barriers that brands need to be on the lookout for?

Cristina: I recently spoke to our packaging expert about refill and reuse programmes and the difficulty of persuading consumers that what they see as this extra bit of effort is worth it. At the moment of sale in the supermarket, a lot of us run on autopilot and don’t want to spend hours looking at the shelves, trying to make more sustainable choices.

It’s vital to make it as easy as possible for the consumer – bring down the cognitive effort and they will be far more likely to choose the product.

Andreea: We know this from behavioural science too. Humans tend to go with the default and often post-rationalise some of the decisions they make. There is a gap between intent and action – people may say they’d like to start buying more sustainably, but oftentimes that’s not what they end up doing.

We call this the ‘green gap’ and that’s where some of the techniques we discussed earlier come into play. Measuring intention at an implicit level gives us a more accurate lens into whether it will turn into actual behaviour. We can then help close this gap by providing the right solutions for follow-through regardless of past choices and habits.


When making decisions, how do brands balance the short-term risks with long-term gains?

Andreea: Firstly, we need to gather the right data to make decisions. Using the behavioural and neuro techniques we’ve been discussing, we can test different options and solutions, making sure we understand how they’ll land.

Once we’ve established the different routes we can take, it’s easier to see what to prioritise but also to place them in the context of the consumer journey and figure out any additional nudges and motivations to encourage consumers to respond and engage.


Are there any macro factors that might impact consumer preference or a brand’s appetite to move ahead with sustainability?

Cristina: The cost of living crisis is certainly a barrier. It means that brands need to work hard on value perception.

Andreea: Transparency is key here. We’ve seen that certain people are happy to pay more if they know where the costs are coming from and the exact amount that they’re investing in the environment.

But others will need to hear that living sustainably doesn’t have to be more expensive – it can even save money. This is our call to action for brands. We need to set new defaults so that sustainable options become cheaper than their counterparts.

Lastly, we can look at how to reframe the costs. For humans, all choices are presented as loss or potential gain. There was this great study done by Zero Waste Scotland, which showed that charging people an extra fee for disposable drink cups instead of offering them a discount for reusable cups is actually more effective at driving behavioural change. Playing on that loss aversion can prove very effective for brands.


Navigating the ‘S’ Word with UNLIMITED

Dive further into consumer attitudes surrounding sustainability and how brands can respond to these by reading the Human Understanding Lab’s full report here.

You can also check out the full episode of our Lab Leaders podcast for more food for thought on how brands can apply deeper Human Understanding to their sustainability activations.

For any questions, reach out to our Lab Leaders host at: