Talking Point: How to communicate CSR persuasively

Guest room sustainability messages

Guest room sustainability messages

In today’s Talking Point blog, Dr Xavier Font, director of Respondeco at Leeds Beckett University, explains why passive and dull CSR communications fail to engage hotel guests.

In general, hotels communicate only 30% of what they do for CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), and they often use ‘corporate speak’ that fails to persuade their customers.

Our latest academic research shows that both individual and chain hotel groups are being careful in their communications, for fear of being accused of greenwashing. The outcome is that the communication becomes bland and fails to either differentiate the business, or change consumer behaviour. The messages tend to be passive and present factual details without emotional engagement or opportunity for guests to experience the benefits, which are often unclear[i]. It’s no wonder then that customers do not respond.

Hotels need to think carefully about why they are communicating, and what they want to achieve. If brand differentiation and recognition are your aims, then messages need to be bold. But if you want to subtly change consumer behaviour to help you meet your sustainability goals, you need to use more persuasive communication methods.

Here are some examples.

A study from the US shows that customers look at sustainability claims suspiciously, expecting companies motivation being a desire to cut costs. Acknowledging that reusing towels saves you money and pledging that you will give a percentage of this to charity increases participation but also enhances consumer trust in your brand, particularly for business travellers. Leisure travellers would prefer you to say that the savings helped reduce the room prices. Nobody wants you to say that you did it just to save planet earth because they don’t trust that message[ii].

When our team developed sustainability communications for TUI’s Time to Smile new hotel concept, our brief said not to mention the S (sustainability) word and to make it fun. It makes sense: show customers how they benefit, and they all want in. Tell them that the planet benefits, and you create mixed messages.

So we went beyond the towel sign and created a shower sign, to encourage shorter showers. Crazy? Maybe, but we identified a personal benefit from having a cooler shower, which in itself has two sustainability benefits: less energy used in heating the water, and let’s face it a shorter shower since nobody has a long cool shower.

You don’t want to be red like a tomato
A cooler shower restores your skin’s natural balance

This sign only makes sense in hot destinations, but messages need to be adapted to be appropriate for their environment. Customers respond better to messages that you’ve spent time adapting to the situation, because they then become meaningful. So bye bye corporate messages and welcome to personalised experiences.

Make Sustainability Look Normal

Similar to this one, we have designed and are now testing the effectiveness of another 20 messages to change consumer behaviour. If all these messages referred to sustainability, the guest would feel overwhelmed. But because each has a personal benefit, they are better received. From labels on garden plants that explain their medicinal properties (and encourage guests to ask staff to make a drink with them, when appropriate) to air conditioning signs that tell guests what temperature they will sleep most comfortably, whenever possible you need to make sustainability look normal and part of the quality service you’re providing.

When you have no choice and you want to communicate sustainability per se, then tell customers about the benefits of it for them; nobody wants to do something without knowing what the positive outcome is for their effort. Write the message positively, otherwise you appeal to their sense of guilt, which is at odds to the nature of travelling and a luxury stay. Instead of telling me the environmental cost of putting my waste in the landfill bin, try first to tell me that 670 recycled cans make 1 bicycle.

Add to this the sense that most of my peers are already doing it. A team of psychologists found that towel reusage went from 35% with a standard environmental message to 49% when customers were told that most other guests already reused their towels when they had stayed in that room, and to join their fellow guests in doing the same[iii].

The result is a seamless sustainability communication campaign that helps reassure customers you care for their wellbeing and comfort, which also happens to have a sustainability benefit. Make sustainability implicit, and those customers that know what you are talking about will read between the lines, while those that do not care will still enjoy the personal benefits. This way sustainability communications contribute to the overall business goal of customer satisfaction, rather than being an attempt to convert customers into ecowarriors.

To learn more about communicating sustainability to guests, read our Know How Guide and listen to our webinar.

[i] Villarino, J., & Font, X. (in print). Sustainability communication myopia: the lack of sustainability communication persuasiveness. Journal of Vacation Marketing.
[ii] Shang, J., Basil, D., & Wymer, W. (2010). Using social marketing to enhance hotel reuse programs. Journal of Business Research, 63, 166-172.
[iii] Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

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