For the tourism industry, there’s no vacation from climate change

September 10, 2017

Vacations are supposed to be spent in paradise — on sun-kissed beaches with palm trees gently swaying overhead and clear blue waters that extend to the horizon. This is a narrative (PDF) that many tourists have come to believe — and that industry marketers have nurtured in their advertising.

But climate change is making it harder for resort owners and tour operators to make good on this promise. Climate change is having more of an impact on tourist destinations by eroding beaches and bleaching coral reefs. Mountain destinations are not immune either, as a warming climate melts glaciers and snow pack.

The latest bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has again brought to the forefront the growing impact of climate change on tourist destinations. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, warmer than usual waters have caused bleaching (PDF) along much of the reef, and have killed nearly a quarter of its coral.

Such an extreme event not only degrades the reef, but can lead to the collapse of the ecosystem as fish and other aquatic life forms move on to find other sources of food and shelter. Making matters worse, these events are expected to occur more frequently going forward, which will leave less time for the reef to recover between events.

Observed Coral Mortality

This type of climate impact can be devastating for the local economy, too. The Great Barrier Reef directly supports69,000 jobs in reef tourism and fishing, and contributes more than AUS $6 billion to the Australian economy each year. The reef is also a national treasure of Australia and the reason that many tourists travel to this far-off continent in the first place.

Over the last 40 years there have been eight significant coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef caused by higher than normal water temperatures. Historically, the Australian tourism industry has tiptoed lightly around the issue of climate change. While many tour operators have borne witness to past bleaching events, they have hesitated to raise their concerns with sympathetic politicians or the press, fearing that any negative publicity would scare away tourists — and profits — in the near term.

It is not surprising then that with the latest bleaching event, the local tourism industry association in Queensland immediately sought to downplay the impact. The Australian government went one step further and had the United Nations actually remove a chapter from the U.N.’s latest climate change report that discussed impact to the reef.

Faced with the worst bleaching on record, tour operators found themselves with few viable options. They could simply ignore it and continue to market to tourists as if nothing had happened. In fact, studies suggest that some tourists would not even notice that conditions materially had changed because they do not have the context to know otherwise. For them, diving on a less-than-pristine reef would be fine as long as conditions exceeded a minimum threshold for seeing fish and other aquatic life.

Alternatively, tour operators could try to adapt to their new reality. For example, they could shift dives to deeper waters that tend to remain cooler and less susceptible to bleaching. But, adaption may be only a temporary solution at best, as bleaching is expected to become an annual occurrence by 2030 without a significant global reduction in carbon emissions.

Organize to fight an existential threat

This time, with the bleaching too devastating and the industry outlook too grim, tour operators were compelled to take a stand. Climate change had become an “existential threat” to the reef and to their livelihood. Instead of remaining silent as they had done in the past, 175 tour operators banded together to urge governmental action to address the underlying cause of the bleaching: greenhouse gases emissions warming the planet.

Tour operators did not just go public with their concerns; they took an aggressive stance against one of Australia’s other leading industries, big coal. They demanded that the government withhold financing and investment support for the proposed Carmichael coal mine, which, if opened, would be the largest coal mine in Australia. They also demanded that new coal mines be disallowed. As Australia is the third largest coal producing country in the world, these demands provide a direct challenge to the status quo and a competing vision for the future.

While it is too early to know how successful these tour operators will be in halting new coal mines from opening, such collective action marks an important step forward in the fight for the long-term survival of the reef.

Reframe the prevailing narrative

While tour operators feel embolden to take on big coal, there is little to suggest that they are ready to challenge the status quo with tourists. Today, many tourists favor vacation destinations that are picture perfect (PDF). Climate change, however, makes it increasingly difficult for tour operators to meet such lofty expectations.

The recent bleaching is a great example. In response, local tourism officials have sought to downplay negative news about the reef. But press coverage already has been so widespread that this would be nearly impossible to do.

Moreover, returning travelers are sharing stories with prospective travelers on social media and travel sites such as Trip Advisor. The upcoming premiere of Disney’s “Finding Dory,” the long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo,” inevitably will invite the press to draw comparison between the vibrant Great Barrier Reef portrayed in these movies and the existing state of the reef today.

NOAA

Potential bleaching and mortality across global oceans in 2016.

Alert Level 1 means bleaching is likely; Alert level 2 means mortality likely; NOAA Coral Reef Watch, February-May 2016.

 

Given all of this, the best response by the tourist industry may be to have a direct and open conversation with prospective tourists about the conditions on the reef, while stressing the importance and excitement of seeing it even if it is still recovering from the bleaching. As part of this exchange, the industry also can start to change the prevailing narrative about what makes a perfect vacation. Conditions may not be pristine on the reef, but seeing an adaptive environment — recovering from the effects of a climate change event — is still worth the experience.

Tour operators may be concerned that such an honest conversation simply will motivate tourists to book a dive vacation elsewhere. Sadly, the bleaching of this reef is not an isolated phenomenon. Coral bleaching and mortality is expected to be widespread across the globe this year, leaving fewer pristine reefs to choose from.

An honest dialogue may be the best way to attract tourists to the reef, while at the same time start to unwind the prevailing narrative that the best vacation destinations have to be picture perfect.

–Originally published on Greenbiz, 2016

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How to Grow Consumer Attachment to Green Brands

May 10, 2012

Marketers work hard to create an emotional link between consumers and the brands those marketers promote. But that kind of attachment is not easily won and must be nurtured over time. Experts say one way to create that emotional link is by aligning a brand’s identity with the consumer’s sense of self; that is, with a person’s understanding of who they are and what they want to be.

But which sense of self are we talking about? The actual one based on how consumers perceive themselves today – or the ideal one based on who they aspire to be? Answering that question has profound implications for brands, including green brands, in terms of how they should build brand attachment with consumers.

Lucia Malär, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Bern’s Institute of Marketing and Management, and several of her colleagues recently published an article in the Journal of Marketing that explores the relationship between the consumer’s actual and ideal sense of self. While this academic study did not directly address green brands, there are important lessons green marketers can take away from it.

According to the paper, consumers generally form greater emotional attachments with brands that align to how consumers view themselves, rather than what consumers aspire to be. For green brands this is not a trivial consideration — especially when you consider that, for many consumers, the notion of being green is a goal they aspire to.

Malär et al. identify three attributes that have a significant impact on consumer attachment: the degree of product involvement, the level of consumer self-esteem and the propensity for public self-consciousness. Here are some thoughts on how these characteristics can help green marketers better engage consumers:

Product Involvement. The paper defines product involvement as a consumer’s engagement with a product, largely determined by how relevant consumers perceive that product to be in their lives.  Malär et al. observe that highly engaged consumers have a positive emotional attachment with brands that align to their actual sense of self, while less engaged consumers have positive attachment with brands that focus on consumers’ ideal sense of self.

At the same time, it’s not necessarily true that less eco-engaged consumers will respond positively to brands aligned to their ideal self. While consumers may be aspirationally green, they simply may not be familiar with the products that can help them achieve this aspiration.

Green marketers might first need to educate consumers about green brands before those brands can become relevant in their lives. One powerful tool is to communicate a goal-driven message around green products, while showcasing their actual use by people that consumers can readily identify with. That’s what Mitsubishi did when it created a demonstration program for electric car technology in the town of Normal, Ill.

Self-Esteem. Malär et al. say consumer self-esteem is an essential part of emotional brand attachment — as consumers seek out brands that reinforce or enhance their own perceptions of self worth. This means consumers with higher self-esteem have a positive emotional attachment to brands that reinforce their actual sense of self. At the same time, consumers with lower self-esteem have positive emotional attachment with brands that enhance perceptions of their ideal sense of self.

Given the relative newness of green as a branding category, it may make sense for green marketers to interpret self-esteem as a consumer’s confidence in their ability to make greener choices that are right for them. When engaging green-confident consumers, brands might therefore want to emphasize evidence that confirms the consumer’s self view.  For example, green brands should praise consumers for taking eco-friendly actions.

In contrast, when engaging less confident consumers, a brand may want to shape the perception of what it means to be a greener product, and to actively facilitate their purchase. Such brands might want to show consumers what they could achieve with these products, and provide a roadmap for them to get to their goals.

Patagonia provides a great illustration of this through its Common Thread Initiative.   While most companies market only new products, Patagonia launched a “Buy Less” campaign — to shape consumer perceptions regarding responsible consumption: reduce, repair, reuse and recycle. The campaign reinforces its point by actively facilitating the buying and selling of lightly-worm merchandise from Patagonia through eBay.

Public Self-Consciousness. Professor Malär and her colleagues identify public self-consciousness as a consumer’s awareness of how others perceive them. People with high public self-consciousness have a positive emotional attachment to brands that focus on consumers’ actual sense of self, while those with low public self-consciousness have a positive attachment with brands that focus on consumers’ ideal sense of self.

Green marketers should take advantage of this factor by providing ways for consumers to receive public accolades for eco-friendly behavior. One way might be to embed gaming elements such as badges, points and leader boards into networked products.

Reward companies such as RecycleBank and Practically Green have already made gamification a core part of their offerings. Moreover, car companies such as Ford and Nissan have begun to incorporate similar concepts into the dashboards of their hybrid vehicles to reinforce eco-friendly driving behaviors.

Alternatively, brands can encourage the use of social media apps, like the one Opower recently launched, can enable consumers to share and compare energy savings.

It’s interesting to note that, while Malär et al. address emotional brand attachment, they do not tackle rational brand attachment. But such an attachment can be an important brand driver for consumers — especially when products have a direct and measurable impact on the environment. As such, when it comes to green products, rational brand attachment has the potential to amplify the emotional.

One emerging example of how to cultivate rational brand attachment is the Obama Administration’s Green Button initiative.  This program will provide millions of consumers with access to their energy data. It might also spark the development of innovative ways to leverage that data, in an effort to motivate consumers to reduce their energy use.

Brand marketers face considerable challenges in establishing and nurturing brand attachment. Those attachments not only require an assessment of brand identity, but also exploring the mindset of the intended consumers — that is, how they actually perceive themselves today or ideally in the future. Green marketers can take advantage of this relationship by aligning their brands to the mindset that best promotes eco-friendly behaviors by consumers.


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