In the final part of this month's management briefing, which looks at environmental sustainability in the soft drinks and bottled water sector, Ben Cooper considers the importance of connecting with consumers to earn one's green wings.

When food and personal products group Unilever last year urged consumers to take showers together to save water the slightly risqué message received considerable attention.

This no doubt won some marketing exec a healthy pat on the back from Unilever CEO Paul Polman. Not only does such publicity do the company's bottom line no harm but the campaign also does what sustainability zealots like Polman are constantly seeking, namely to place sustainability at the heart of the company's commercial activity and brand messaging, to underline that sustainable values are central to its ethos.

The campaign was using brand advertising to put over an important sustainability message directly to consumers. Whether or not thousands of consumers immediately jumped in the shower together is not the point. The intention was to communicate that water is an increasingly scarce and valuable resource, that Unilever cares about this and cares enough to focus its own advertising on the issue, and thirdly that consumers have a role to play in mitigating the problem.

Increasingly, sustainability messaging is being incorporated into the brand marketing of soft drinks and bottled water brands, particularly with regard to recycling. And this is an area where effective, direct consumer communication is particularly vital.

The concerted efforts of companies, NGOs and governments to boost recycling rates depend on being able to persuade consumers to dispose of packaging in a responsible manner and to participate in municipal and other recycling programmes. Relatively low consumer recycling rates, such as are currently seen in the UK, France and the US, compromise not only governments' sustainability efforts but also companies' corporate sustainability aspirations. 

Bryan Jacob, climate change director at Coca-Cola, believes companies have to find a balance between "technology and behaviour" in their approach to the recycling issue. The technology that is now in place, such as Coca-Cola's bottle-to-bottle recycling facilities in the US, the UK and Mexico, can only be effective if consumers are willing "to be part of the solution and get those bottles into a recycling collection system".

Research on consumer recycling rates

With their sustainability strategies dependent on consumers recycling bottles and cans, companies have a vested interest in researching consumer motivations around recycling. With this in mind, Coca-Cola's European bottler, Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), is undertaking what it describes as a "groundbreaking" ethnographic study looking at why recycling rates in the UK are so low, called Recycle for the Future, in partnership with Exeter University. 

Essentially, the study will look at the divergence between consumer intention and action on recycling. Despite people expressing a strong commitment to environmentally responsible behaviour in the UK, recycling rates remain low, and the study aims to learn more about why consumers fail to act in accordance with their stated beliefs. It will observe ten households over a six-month period, to "explore the dynamics that drive waste and recycling behaviours in the home, and the solutions that could influence such behaviours and eventually improve at-home recycling rates".

Crucially, CCE plans to share the results with local authorities, NGOs and other businesses trying to influence environmental behaviours in the home, with the aim of collectively developing solutions that will help improve recycling rates.

Among the questions being asked is whether a lack of understanding of the infrastructures in place - notably scepticism about whether products are actually recycled at all - is responsible for the low recycling rates. The study will also examine recycling rates among different age groups. Thirdly, it will examine the impact of on-pack information. 

Joe Franses, director of corporate responsibility and sustainability at Coca-Cola Enterprises, sees the research as "the black box of the household in terms of recycling", again stressing that the findings will be shared with any interested parties. "We'll share the learnings so hopefully it will provide value for other businesses and policymakers."

Communicating with consumers

While there may be systemic factors in play which might explain why some national or municipal collection systems achieve better consumer uptake than others, the ability of public authorities to change consumer behaviour is open to question. But, for brand companies, it is their stock in trade. They know how to communicate with consumers. Even tongue in cheek, a local authority would probably not urge people to shower together to save water; Unilever can. Utilising marketing nous and iconic brands to raise consumer awareness around sustainability and in particular boost recycling rates is clearly a significant way soft drinks and bottled water companies can contribute.

The question of whether on-pack communication is an effective means of influencing consumer behaviour will be part of the Exeter University study, but Franses remains unconvinced that more communication on-pack would be fruitful. Instead, Coca-Cola Enterprises is investing in consumer campaigns and events aimed at raising awareness about recycling and boosting recycling rates.

Most notably the company ran a major campaign linked to Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympic Games. The company used the Olympic Torch Relay to communicate directly with consumers about recycling. According to CCE, the Olympic Torch Relay campaign reached some 900,000 people, with 2.3 tonnes of bottles collected during the 70-day tour. During the Games, the company used signage around drinks concessions and recycling bins to reinforce the message further, with a Coca-Cola team also roaming the Olympic Park, celebrating individuals who they found recycling in a 'flash mob' style of entertainment.

This summer, CCE is running a series of initiatives as part of its drive to boost consumer recycling in Scotland. The company had a presence at the RockNess festival and will also be present at the Royal Highland Show, where it will launch its Happiness Recycled campaign and showcase new interactive bins.

For the Coca-Cola Co itself, Bryan Jacob highlights the company's Give it Back campaign and Ekocycle programme as significant consumer outreach initiatives which harness the company's iconic brand status to change consumer attitudes.

Meanwhile, Nestle Waters North America (NWNA) has run campaigns related to recycling in association with its Deer Park and Arrowhead brands. Such campaigns are a key part of the company's sustainability strategy, says Michael Washburn, VP sustainability at Nestle Waters North America.

"Our sustainability strategy is to communicate through our actions and the best way to communicate this is through the marketing of our products and brands," Washburn says. Consumer campaigns of this nature will continue to be a feature of the NWNA sustainability strategy going forward, Washburn adds. "Education of our consumer is a continual process that will not happen overnight.  We must continue in the long run. We will continue such campaigns in the future and learn what has worked and what has not worked for improvement going forward."

PepsiCo has made activations in schools a feature of its Dream Machine recycling initiative. Hundreds of schools across the US joined PepsiCo's Dream Machine Recycle Rally programme to demonstrate their commitment to recycling and earn rewards for their schools. In total, the company awarded nearly US$200,000 in prizes to dozens of Recycle Rally schools across the country throughout the 2012-2013 school year.

For details of all four parts of this briefing, click here.