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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Growing Business Opportunities in Home Lighting, Heating

November 10, 2012

A ban on incandescent light bulbs took effect in the European Union last month, making more efficient lighting technologies — including compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs) — standard across Europe. Such a milestone reminds us that market shifts — whether spurred by regulation or innovation — open up new opportunities for businesses to sell greener products and services to consumers.

Many of these emerging opportunities focus on efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Here are two that businesses should consider:

Next-generation lighting

The European Union isn’t the only region phasing out traditional incandescent lightbulbs. In 2007, the United States passed a similar regulation that effectively eliminates many of those bulbs by January of 2014. Initially, this mandate spurred demand for CFLs, likely from niche consumers willing to pay a higher price for an emerging technology that promised lower electrical usage and longer product life. But, since 2008, CFL purchases have declined each year, despite a precipitous drop in price.

Today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, two thirds of the energy savings potential from CFLs has yet to be realized. As such, with the U.S. pulling out of the recession and consumers more willing to open their wallets, businesses have an opportunity to spur demand for next-generation lighting products.

Retailers are showing renewed interest in efficient bulbs. Ace Hardware, for example, recently declared Oct. 18 to be Annual Light Bulb Day to raise national awareness for CFLs and other lighting technologies. It also offered discounts on purchases to motivate foot traffic and drive sales.

Alternatively, Ikea has chosen to bypass CFLs: It plans to stock LEDs exclusively by 2016 because it believes the rapidly evolving technology will likely outperform CFLs in the near future. By picking a winner in the lighting category, IKEA generated a lot of buzz for its stores and interest in this emerging technology.

Utilities and utility regulatory boards are also spurring demand as they comply with state energy-efficiency mandates. For example, Efficiency Vermont, an organization authorized and funded by the Vermont Public Service Board to promote energy efficiency, launched a successful campaign to increase the use of CFLs. The campaign tackled the perception that CFLs were more expensive by advertising 99-cent bulbs available at participating retailers. It also created a sense of urgency (“good while supplies last”) to drive demand. The campaign was so successful that it doubled the number of CFLs sold per month.

Natural-gas home heating

Meanwhile, another home-energy opportunity is emerging: converting home heating systems from heating oil to natural gas. Not only would shifting to natural gas greatly reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality, but — in most cases where gas lines are nearby — would also generate very positive returns for homeowners.

Technology innovation is precipitating this opportunity by unlocking vast amounts of natural gas in shale formations across the country. Many such formations are concentrated in the northeast, a region that historically has relied more on heating oil, partly because of the region’s limited pipeline capacity for bringing gas from the Gulf of Mexico. With natural gas supplies increasing, the residential price has dropped dramatically from its peak in 2005-2006.

Simultaneously, the residential price of heating oil has grown dramatically, providing even more incentive for households to switch to natural gas. In fact, according to the Energy Department, the average heating-oil-heated household now spends more than three times as much on heating ($2,298) as the average natural-gas-heated household ($724).

Of course, many of the developments in natural gas are the result of hydrofracking, a controversial extraction process. Many believe that hydrofracking risks contaminating aquifers used for drinking water, although the degree of risk is up for debate. And while greener fracking technologies are emerging, they haven’t yet reached commercial scale. Still, the benefits of shifting away from heating oil to natural gas may outweigh the costs.

If shale gas extraction continues, there are many ways that businesses can promote natural gas conversion to consumers. Certainly, energy companies can motivate their own customers to make the switch through the use of incentives. Utilities such as Con Edison are already helping to coordinate clusters of property owners to convert together, thereby lowering the upfront costs for individual customers.

Banks also can promote natural gas conversions by extending loans to help consumers make the switch. One such loan program by People’s United Bank covers the upfront conversion costs for Southern Connecticut Gas and Connecticut Natural Gas customers.

Market shifts in regulation and technology are enabling new opportunities to provide efficient home energy solutions for consumers. Many businesses are already starting to take advantage of this. Those that aren’t yet should take note: As the U.S. continues to emerge from the recession, consumer appetite for such solutions is only likely to increase.


Reframing Ancestral Traits To Be Green

June 21, 2012

Certain human behaviors today reflect hardwired traits that helped our ancestors and their kin over time. Such behaviors provide individual benefit, yet the collective impact of such actions can be detrimental to the environment, creating a situation not unlike the Tragedy of the Commons.

Unfortunately, for green marketers, such individual behaviors are not easily influenced, creating an ever-present headwind that they must contend with. Confronting such behavior directly, such as asking individuals to make different choices because current ones are detrimental to the environment, has not proven very successful for marketers.

Instead, Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie Cantú and Mark Van Vugt, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, suggest that there are alternative ways to shape such behaviors: Motivate individuals to take more pro-social (and therefore, more eco-friendly) actions by reframing them as having “evolutionary selfish” benefits.

Based on Griskevicius et al., there are at least three social motivations that will drive individuals to alter their behavior in a more pro-environmental way.

Social obligation. One ancestral trait that marketers must confront is that individuals promote self interest – or the interest of their kin – over others. Importantly, Griskevicius et al. note that this wasn’t always the case. For example, it is well documented that clans hunted together, generating mutual benefit. For marketers, this provides a window of understanding into how similar behavioral choices can be reframed today in order for individuals to generate positive benefits from collective actions.

One way marketers have tried to motivate individuals to do so is by creating a social obligation.  Hoteliers have attempted to do so by offering to make a donation on the behalf of guests if those guests reuse their towels once during their stay. Yet, when behavioral economists tested such messaging, it did not motivate significantly different behavior than traditional messaging.

Recently, economists have tried a different approach. This time, the offer of donation was reframed not as a choice but as a fait accompli. The hotel simply informed guests that a donation had been made on their behalf in exchange for reusing towels. In this case, guests felt more obligated to reciprocate, lifting towel reuse by 26 percent (from Goldstein, Noah J.,Vladas Griskevicius, and Robert B. Cialdini (2012), “Reciprocity by Proxy: Harnessing the Power of Obligation to Foster Cooperation,” Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming, as cited by Griskevicius et al.). For marketers, such reframing has broader applicability when companies can afford to incentivize consumer actions, but cannot track and reward individuals for their specific behaviors.

Social recognition. Another ancestral trait is that humans strive to achieve relative (though not absolute) status. This means that humans want a certain level of wealth, power or fame in relation to those around them. Such behavior – the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” – is well documented. For example, neighbors of Dutch lottery ticket winners have a higher propensity to purchase new cars or renovate the exterior of their existing homes within the following six months after the winner takes home the money. Such behavior, however, can be problematic as it can lead to over consumption.

Interestingly, consumption is not the only way to display relative status. In fact, as Griskevicius et al. mention somewhat counterintuitively, status can also be achieved through competitive altruism whereby wealthy donors compete for status based on the amount donated, with public recognition for their generosity as a primary motivator.

But marketers can drive eco-friendly actions more broadly with consumers, not just with wealthy donors. The Elan Inn in Hangzhou, China, for example, rewards hotel guests for reducing their carbon impact by moderating room temperatures in summer and winter, or even bringing their own towel. Such rewards would be even more powerful if status were associated with visible perks enjoyed during a hotel stay or meaningful badges displayed on Facebook or local social networks.

Social influence. A final ancestral trait is for humans to unconsciously emulate the behavior of others. For marketers, the challenge is to redirect the behavior by holding up pro-environmental behavior to emulate. For example, as Griskevicius et al. point out, it has been demonstrated that the conservation behavior of one’s neighbors is “often the strongest predictor of [one’s] actual energy use.”

Such benchmarking against others works well as long as a majority demonstrates the desired eco-friendly behavior. But, what happens if only a few neighbors do?

Griskevicius et al. suggest that in this situation, green marketers should reframe the message to create the perception that more people do. They provide an illustration: Instead of communicating that only 5 percent of municipal residents carpool, message that 250,000 do. Reframing the message from a relative to absolute basis can create the perception that more people support the eco-friendly behavior, elevating the social influence that a campaign can actually have.

Hardwired human traits present a challenge for green marketers, as individual behaviors that benefit natural selection may collectively be detrimental to the environment. Instead of confronting them head on, marketers should reframe behaviors to be more pro-social, while ensuring that they are perceived to benefit the individual. By doing so, marketers turn headwinds more favorable.


Can Flash Mobs Engage Consumers on Green?

December 21, 2011

Recently, National Grid launched a surprise dance performance in a Saugus, MA mall as part of its ‘Tap into Savings’ campaign.  In many ways, this performance resembled a flash mob, with dancers appearing seemingly from nowhere to engage an unsuspecting crowd of shoppers, and then dispersing.

As a social phenomenon, the flash mob emerged in the early 00’s, enabled by Internet and mobile connectivity. While some flash mobs organize spontaneously, most are actually well-choreographed events that often captivate unsuspecting audiences where they occur.  One of the most viewed flash mobs was a choreographed rendition of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in Central Station Antwerp, Belgium.

While flash mobs are no longer the rage, marketers have periodically embraced the medium, as they consider it a tested way to engage new audiences and promote viral marketing.  Two corporate flash mobs are stand outs: First, in 2009, T-Mobile sponsored a flash mob in 2009 at Liverpool Station, London.

More recently, Wells Fargo sponsored a flash mob in New York City’s Times Square as part of their 2011 launch (rebranding of Wachovia) in the city.

Marketers in the green space have also embraced the flash mob, though primarily to make political statements rather than promote brands.  One such statement was made by students at the University of Catania in Sicily in its “The World Has Been Stripped Enough” flash mob for the 2011 World Environment Day.

Intriguingly, as green marketers and brands try to engage a more mainstream audience, it seems that there is broader role that flash mobs can play.  Specifically, flash mobs can:

Capture and hold attention.  Flash mobs capture consumer attention through the element of surprise, and hold it by being entertaining.

Green marketers can take advantage of this by turning the event into a teachable moment, especially when engaging audiences that might not ordinarily tune into an environmental message.  National Grid, for example, used its dance performance to teach shoppers about energy savings.

Reach fragmented audiences.  As channels have proliferated and audiences become more fragmented, marketers have had to respond by investing across more channels in order to be able to reach their intended audience.  In an ideal world, flexible creative assets can be produced all at once and then distributed across various channels.  Flash mobs offer a great example of a tactic that naturally aligns with this shift.

Take T-Mobile, for example.  While the flash mob captured the momentary attention of the surrounding crowds, it was also filmed for a TV spot that aired 36 hours later.  Video cuts were also distributed through channels like YouTube and viewed by millions more users.  This use of flexible assets enabled T-Mobile to get the most out of a single event.

Cultivate peer endorsements.  Marketers recognize that consumer endorsements can influence the behavior and beliefs of their peers.  Many marketers take advantage of this today by actively encouraging such endorsements as a key objective of the campaign.  Interestingly, flash mob dynamics may facilitate consumer endorsement more deliberately, or perhaps even enable a marketer to stage it.

A flash mob sponsored by TVA Canoe, an Internet TV site in Quebec, provides a great example of this. In this case, flash mob participants effectively reversed roles with unwitting bystanders.  To initiate the flash mob, a performer left an empty plastic bottle on the ground next to a recycling container in a well trafficked area of a mall. Shoppers filed pass the plastic bottle without much notice, while participants waited, blending in amongst the crowds.

Then, one woman, an unwitting bystander, picked up the bottle and put it into the recycling container. When she did, she was met with a standing ovation from the flash mob ‘audience’.

From a bystander’s view point, it looked as if fellow shoppers spontaneously broke into applause in response to an altruistic act by a peer.  Such overwhelming praise has the potential, in of itself, to be perceived by consumers as a peer endorsement, reinforcing the positive behavior in the minds of the consumer audience

Transform brand enthusiasts into participants. It is important for marketers to remember that green consumers tend to be passionate about not only what the brand stands for, but how much they can reduce their impact by choosing one product or brand over another.

Marketers should cultivate this sentiment by finding meaningful ways for enthusiasts to interact with the brand and share those experiences with others.  One way may be to invite enthusiasts to actually participate in a flash mob itself.  What better way to engage with the brand?  It certainly provides fodder for generating and sharing social content afterwards.

It has been a decade since flash mobs emerged as a social phenomenon.  Over that time, marketers have embraced the medium to drive engagement and encourage viral marketing.  Interestingly, green marketers challenged to engage mainstream audiences may find the flash mob especially useful in reaching target audiences and influencing behavior change.


Pay-As-You-Go Pays for the Environment

December 23, 2010

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) is emerging as a winning consumption model for the environment. It does so in two ways. First, by charging for incremental use, PAYG discourages overconsumption often associated with flat rate pricing. Second, it incentivizes shared use of resources during peak periods in order to avoid excess investments in capacity that would otherwise be underutilized for much of the time.

In recent years, several PAYG models have emerged that are having a positive impact on the environment. For example, smart grid initiatives provide consumers with tiered pricing models that incentivize them to reduce or shift energy use during peak periods. Additionally, PAYG models in cloud computing allow consumers the flexibility to add computing capacity in real-time, while avoiding the need to overinvest in server capacity utilized only during peak periods.

This month, another consumption model got a big boost when the California Insurance Commission approved the launch of PAYG car insurance in the country’s largest car market. Beginning in February, 2011, California residents will be able to purchase insurance from State Farm and the Automobile Club of Southern California and pay based on how much – and how safely – they drive. The less they drive, the less they pay.

Such a model is enabled through the tracking of personal driving data. Consumers self-report miles driven (and validate periodically through inspection) or do so automatically through an active OnStar system or small telematics device that plugs into a diagnostic port under the dashboard. Insurance companies then effectively create personalized rates based on actual car use.

Potential benefits for the environment from PAYG are significant: The State of California estimates that subscribers may reduce miles driven by 10% or more, saving consumers money while reducing accidents, congestion and air pollution.

A wide variety of companies are now in a position to consider testing PAYG models with their customers, especially those that are price sensitive, tend to use a product less than the average or demand additional services during peak periods. While consumers may focus on saving money, the real benefits may be saved for the environment.


Green Product Paradox: When Too Much Good Is Bad for the Environment

October 4, 2010

A common mantra in green marketing is that if you want the masses to buy your product, focus your messaging on more traditional attributes such as price, quality or service.  A product’s “greenness” is likely secondary for many mainstream consumers. For green marketers then, the holy grail may be to offer a product that is competitive on dimensions both traditional and eco-friendly.  This would result in the greatest number of products sold and greatest impact on the environment.

But, things are not always that simple.  Consider the scenario when an innovative green product spurs new demand across an entire product category, rather than just replaces the existing generation of products in market. Is the individual product still green if the aggregate impact of the category is greater than what it replaced? 

Take, for example, household lighting.  Most of us are aware that switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs can result in a dramatic reduction in energy use.  But, overall adoption has been relatively modest in comparison to the potential market, likely due to the premium price commanded for the bulbs. 

Today, an even newer generation of lighting technology is on the commercial horizon.  Solid state lighting, described as a “souped up” version of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are commonly used today to illuminate electronic displays on alarm clocks and audio equipment, promises to provide lighting at a fraction of the energy used by today’s bulbs.  (“Not Such a Bright Idea”, The Economist, August 26, 2010)  Mass adoption of such technology could have significant implications for the environment given that 6.5% of the world’s energy is used for illumination.

In many ways, we should celebrate such technology fixes given their benefits to the environment.  For marketers, solid state lighting clearly has the potential to be one of those “holy grail products”. Yet, green products such as solid state lighting also present a paradox in that their adoption in mass might actually be detrimental to the environment. How could this be the case?  Well, according to J Y Tsao and colleagues at the Sandia National Laboratory, cheaper lighting that sips energy will likely increase overall demand and uses for light, and with it, overall energy consumption.  (J Y Tsao, et. al., “Solid-State Lighting: An Energy-Economics Perspective”, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, August 19, 2010)

The rationale? Today, Tsao et. al., contends that consumers underconsume indoor light – with current fixtures providing 1/10th of the illumination as ambient outdoor light on cloudy days and 1/60th of ambient outdoor light on sunny ones.  Tsao rationalizes that there is plenty of room to consume more – including in new ways that have yet to be thought of.

As evidence, Tsao et. al., models historical lighting use and adoption rates for new technologies – from gas lanterns to fluorescent bulbs – and extrapolates forward demand based on the amount of light produced (measured in lumens) and cost per lumen.

Historic trends clearly indicate that consumer demand greatly increased when cost dropped and other attributes – such as faster turn on/off and greater cleanliness – expanded lighting uses.  Extrapolating into the future, Tsao et. al., predicts that with solid state lighting, demand has the potential to increase10x by 2030 and with it, perhaps a 2x increase in energy use.  How paradoxical. 

It is important to note that the green product paradox is not isolated to LED lighting.  Increased demand for electric cars, for example, could result in a similar dilemma if the added electricity load needed to power the vehicles is generated using higher polluting coal.

As such, the green product paradox presents quite the challenge for a marketer.  For individual companies, such products can be both profitable and (at least appear) socially responsible.   It is only by looking at the forest from the trees – and perhaps a little into the future – does it become apparent that, in aggregate, such products may, paradoxically, have a negative impact.

A sustainable brand might try itself to mitigate any impact that its products may have.  But, this will only have broad impact if it ultimately compels competitors to follow suit.  Given this, marketers should recognize that a solution to the paradox may not lie within an individual company’s grasp.  Alternatively, it may take an industry consortium to make the necessary product changes or evolve consumer expectations.  Or, it may take collaboration across industries to have lasting impact.  In both examples cited above, a shift to lower-polluting sources for energy generation would mitigate an increase in demand for both products.

Overall, the green product paradox presents a difficult challenge for green marketers.  Doing good for the planet may not always be as a simple as motivating purchase of greener goods.  In some cases, it just might be too much of a good thing.


Green Brand Leadership: a Fish Story

August 16, 2010

The customer is always right – so goes the mantra of every sales rep from time immemorial. But, as we know, what customers want may not be best for the planet. For some brands, this presents a dilemma: how do you satisfy consumer needs while remaining eco-responsible?

The dilemma can be quite daunting for a brand, especially if the eco-impact is caused by lifestyle choices consumers are long accustomed to. This challenge is only compounded when consumers are not yet aware that their very actions are having a detrimental effect – as no brand wants to be the bearer of bad news. Or, perhaps more challenging still, brands may find that the very behaviors and rituals that help define a brand itself turn out to perpetuate the very actions that are having a negative impact.

Whose responsibility is it to promote more sustainable consumer behaviors?

Many brands would say, it is the role of governments to regulate – and if they don’t, a corporate entity is not accountable for their failure to act. Others would say that it should be left to the discerning buyer. Should a brand itself take the lead? Some may argue yes. It is a demonstration of brand leadership, they say.

But, being out ahead of one’s customers may serve brands well only when their customers expect them to do so. Staking out a leadership position appeals to customers that want to know that they are doing good through the choices that they make.

Others may argue no. Brands sell products, not morality they might say. Worse, eco-responsible messaging may be antithetical to the experience a brand is trying to create. It is hard to enjoy pleasures guilt-free if one is constantly reminded of the impact that one is having on the planet.

But, regardless of where one nets out on this issue, one thing is clear: today, brands are increasingly left with little choice but to act – or react – whether or not their actions directly influence customer purchase decisions. Advocacy groups as well as individuals are leveraging the power of the media (and social media) to broadcast and amplify their voices to sway popular opinion.

Whether viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership or take a defensive stance, it is likely that more and more brands will have to make such choices.

One example of such tension between brands and eco-decisions recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine article by Paul Greenberg, “Tuna’s End: The Fate of the Bluefin, the Oceans and Us.” (June 27, 2010), As Greenberg writes, Nobu, the internationally acclaimed sushi restaurant chain, faces a decision today over the selection of seafood that it serves.

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna – a prized fish for sushi and sashimi – is now endangered. Continued commercial fishing may push it to extinction. Further, the timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf likely exacerbated the situation by polluting one of two known breeding grounds in the Atlantic for these fish right as mating season was to begin.

Today, Greenpeace is pressuring Nobu – in large measure because it is a category leader – to no longer serve Bluefin to its patrons. Nobu has resisted. Nobu co-owner Richie Notar noted, “The Japanese have relied on tuna and other bounties of the sea as part of their culture and history for centuries. We are absolutely appreciative of your goals and efforts within your cause, but it goes far beyond just saying that we can just taken what all of a sudden has been declared an “endangered” species off the menu. It has to do with custom, heritage and behavior.”

Arguably, Nobu’s brand identity emanates from a careful balance of adherence to the tradition and ritual of sushi – its creation, its presentation, its consumption – and hip appeal: swanky ambiance, innovative food creations and celebrity ownership. Out of balance, the brand does not deliver on the experience consumers have come to expect.

With this balance in mind, Nobu has tried to stake out a middle ground by updating its menu with the following message: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative”

Such a simple message informs patrons of the issue and then let’s each consumer make their own choice. Additionally, such phrasing invites a dialogue between the patron and server regarding food substitutes, though it is unclear as to how many patrons would be inclined to do so.

What Nobu has missed, however, is an opportunity to leverage this situation to evolve its brand appeal – keeping the balance between tradition and hip appeal while elevating each to the next level.

Nobu could find an alternative to Bluefin tuna and not jeopardize the brand, but arguably reinforce consumer perception of Nobu as hip and trendy. Greenberg asserts that what Nobu needs is a new substitute for tuna. As part of his research, he went searching for a Bluefin substitute and may have found one in a fish known as kahala. Arguably, Nobu is missing an opportunity to be one of the first to introduce kahala across its menus, reinforcing its trendy image.

Ironically, by introducing such a substitute, Nobu would not be breaking with tradition, but rather, returning to it, as Bluefin was not widely popular in sushi until just 30 years ago. It was nowhere to be found in sushi before 170 years ago.

Thus, shifting away from Bluefin and offering consumers a tasty substitute could actually enhance Nobu’s reputation for seeding new trends while maintaining close adherence to the tradition of sushi.

In this case, what is good for the brand may actually be good for the planet.


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