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Build Back Better – How narratives make markets

This article first appeared in the January 01/21 issue of "absatzwirtschaft".

Those New Year's resolutions ... did you make any? More than a third of Germans did, coming after a mixed year at best in 2020 for six out of ten people in which most plans had to be canceled and only a few things worked out. As could be expected given the pandemic, the resolutions people made concern health more than they do in a typical year: physical fitness, healthy eating, doing medical screenings, etc. A resolution that one in six people have made is new however: to “take better care of the environment”. In the resolution statistics tracked over the years, this represents the first and only goal of societal relevance, as opposed to purely personal goals. Does this reflect how social responsibility has become more important to people? If not, what accounts for the difference this year?

In our consumer studies we have observed a highly interesting new connection between people’s desire for healthier living and a desire to live more in tune with the environment. This “weak signal” we have detected is indicative of an ongoing shift in the heretofore dominant narrative of environmental awareness: that the benefit of the planet, its animal life, etc. is something one has to sacrifice for. Doing something for the environment used to mean going without certain things, avoiding certain things. But today, people are seeing the healthy lifestyle they desire for themselves as intrinsically bound up with an environmental awareness of how they need to act with responsibility toward the wider world they live in. A new belief is emerging along the lines of:

My health and personal growth and happiness are subject to my life context, thus I need to live in a clean world of social responsibility.



Nobody knows right now exactly what such a sustainable and healthy life context would look like, but #sustainablelifestyle is now a surging hashtag on Instagram, “sustainable” is a top Google search term and the phrase “build back better” is often attached to narratives in politics and business. Obviously however, the New Year’s resolutions of 2021 will not convert into reality in 95 percent of cases, as in other years. Cognitive dissonance abounds, there being a stark gap between desired and actual behaviors which has caused many decision-makers to put off “going sustainable” until what consumers say they wants starts translating into market behavior.

As a behavioral architect and scientist, I know that behavioral change requires contextual change, and now we have the pandemic on top of the impending climate crisis, accelerating even further the pace of contextual change in ways previously unimagined. Thus, we see contemporary brands like micromobility subscription provider Swapfiets developing new, sustainable usage contexts in the form of product-service ecosystems. The goal: to design desired behaviors. So rather than asking “when will it catch on with consumers” the question is “how do we go about shaping the new usage context?” Moving beyond the usual amusement over people’s resolutions, we are looking at how to make brands useful within a context of sustainable and healthy consumer lifestyles and a “build back better” economy.

This article first appeared in the January 01/21 issue of "Absatzwirtschaft".


Author: Europa Bendig

STURMundDRANG founder and General Manager Europa Bendig has been consulting on innovation processes for NGOs and international enterprises for 18 years, primarily in the luxury goods, health, services, beauty, living and social businesses. She specializes in cultural codes and narratives that give brands and portfolios cultural relevance and promote customer loyalty.

Image references

Image 1: "Boxed Water" // Image 2: "Swapfiets"