Can You Embarrass People Into Environmental Awareness?
Using demarketing to stop people from using plastic bags
Welcome to the Age of Demarketing
Demarketing. When you go to use this word in a sentence outside of a college classroom or some very knowledgeable marketing folks, most times, somebody will stop you in mid-sentence with a response something like, “Dewhat” or “Whadyajustsay???”
In a world where the business of business seems to be to encourage “more, more and even more”…of everything, we typically think of marketing as the key to success. And in 98–99% of all cases, whatever our organization is, wherever we are, and no matter what kind of product and/or service we may be offering, yes, we want you to use more of it — and of us! Sell! Sell! Sell! That’s what we’re talking about!
However, in a world that seems to be testing the limits of just about everything — from the environment to public health to tolerance and more — demarketing is taking on an ever more prominent role.
What is demarketing?
The concept originated with a 1971 Harvard Business Review article, in which the authors Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy, defined demarketing as “that aspect of marketing that deals with discouraging customers in general or a certain class of customers in particular on a temporary or permanent basis.” Now, when the article was published, the concept mainly dealt with how companies should deal with shortages of their products or how they could make their products seem more exclusive. The thought was that you wanted to keep some demand alive — either to intentionally have reduced levels for higher prices (think a high-end hotel)….
…or to deal with temporary situations where demand outstrips supply (think whatever the “hot” Christmas toy might be).
In recent years however, the use of the demarketing concept has been applied in a far different fashion. As Kotler himself wrote in a 2017 article for The Marketing Journal, entitled “Welcome to the Age of Demarketing:”
“Most of the commercial world spends its time trying to increase the demand for products and services. But we also need a science of “Demarketing” to help reduce the demand for certain products and services. It would be applied to reduce the demand for “vice” products such as hard drugs, cigarettes, and fatty foods. It would also be used to reduce the use of scarce resources, such as water, clean air, certain fish, and certain minerals.”
In this case, what companies — and other organizations, such as non-profits, governmental agencies, health organizations, etc. — would be seeking was not just to decrease demand, but to extinguish it, if at all possible! When it comes to efforts to promote good behaviors (i.e. healthy living, environmental consciousness, child abuse, etc.), there really would be no incentive to keep any level of demand going. Rather, for activities such as drug use, smoking, overeating, and yes, polluting, demarketing could be used for the betterment not just of the individual, but of society as a whole.
And so we see this happening routinely in our society, from efforts to reduce drug abuse and all forms of addictions, sexual assault, obesity, and many more societal ills.
Kotler stated in his 2017 article — which, oh by the way, he wrote when he was just 86 years young — that demarketing “works best when there is high citizen consensus that the consumption of some good or service should be reduced.” Kotler himself saw that demarketing would play a role in shifting consumer behavior toward promoting greater environmentally friendly actions by consumers.
In fact, “minimizing harm to nature” was one of the four conditions that he saw as suited for the demand reduction that demarketing efforts could bring about. Since discouraging the use of plastic disposables was just such a goal that a universal consensus exists (well, except for those employed and lobbying for “Big Plastic” perhaps!), this would seem like the perfect situation for demarketing to be utilized. And while it might be tough to extinguish such negative actions entirely, any and all reductions in such environmentally harmful actions will — no doubt — serve to produce societal gains.
The Case Study of When Mr. Kwen Meets Dr. Kotler
A very, very interesting demarketing case study currently taking place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The East West Market and its owner, a gentleman named David Lee Kwen, has created with a novel approach to trying to get its customers to use reusable shopping bags. In a word, Kwen thought that embarrassment would prompt the market’s shoppers to use more reusable shopping bags — instead of plastic — and cut down on the environmental harm done by what are, for the most part, one-time-use plastic bags.
While scientists may disagree on exactly how long it might take for plastic bags to decompose — the range of estimates spans from 50 to a 1000 years — plastics experts from all around the world can agree on a very scientific answer to the question of just how long your Kroger or Albertsons plastic bag will sit in a landfill. In a nutshell, as Slate famously put it, for plastic scientists and garbologists (yes, that is an accepted scientific discipline!), “all these figures are just another way of saying ‘a really, really long time’.”
So, from the Kotlerian perspective, this is a perfect situation for demarketing to be able to promote the “right” consumer behavior to help protect the environment. And hats off to Mr. Kwen for trying, with his one store and an order of a thousand novelty plastic shopping bags, to do a small part to helping curb the seemingly intransigent problem of plastics pollution.
What actually happened at the East West Market was quite interesting, and it does perhaps provide some “lessons learned” — both positively and negatively — for other companies seeking to use humor and shame as demarketing tools going forward.
Demarketing single-use plastics in Vancouver
The story of how all this came about is indeed quite admirable. Canada has been at the forefront of trying to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags. In fact, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in June 2019 that Canada would be banning a number of “single-use plastics” — everything from plastic bags, plates, cutlery, stir sticks and more — by 2021.
Vancouver’s City Council has set specific goals in a timeline for gradually getting rid of single-use plastics by product category. As seen in the graphic below, plastic bags were targeted for elimination later this year in the city — as has been done in other British Columbia cities (including Victoria) already.
However, B.C.’s largest city has encouraged business owners to take proactive steps on their own to switch their product and service offerings in advance of the governmental directive to influence “better” consumer behaviors — and thus have a positive impact on the environment in the meantime as part of its Greenest City Action Plan “for staying on the leading edge of urban sustainability” and to have zero waste by 2040.
As in the European Union and the United States, plastic bags have indeed been targeted as one of the easiest of these items to replace. Many major chains — such as Target, Whole Foods Market, TJ Maxx, Trader Joe’s and many, many more (including Kroger and Albertsons that I named earlier)— and even individual stores have introduced “branded” reusable bags for customers.
While some stores offer discounts (often 5 cents a bag) for customers to use their own reusable bags over the store’s plastic offering, more and more, this is looked at as a marketing opportunity as well! Hey, while doing good for the environment, bags emblazoned with the store’s name and often, good, eye-catching artwork, also serve as a great promotional item for the retailer —even becoming today what marketing analyst, Ted Mininni, President of Design Force, dubbed a modern-day “fashion statement.” Talk about a “win-win!”
The East West Market approach: Taking demarketing to an “eleven”
Seeing that the government would seek to eliminate single-use plastic, store owner, David Lee Kwen wanted to take action at his store that would get ahead of the governmental action in Canada. And yes, he took the marketing idea, shall we say, to an “eleven!”
Kwen could have simply chosen to produce more of the reusable bags that his store had been encouraging customers to use. He had been charging a fee of five cents a bag, but that did not seem to be dissuading some shoppers from not switching to reusable bags. So, he had an idea, and it was yes, something that would become the stuff of marketing legends, garnering far, far more publicity for this Vancouver grocery store owner than likely he could have ever imagined. I mean, when was the last time that a plastic bag went viral?
And so David Lee Kwen ordered up a thousand specially-printed bags for his store, and the East West Market released the following video to explain just why they were doing this.
Now the bags were, shall, we say, attention-getting. They were emblazoned with three different fake store names that Mr. Kwen himself says he came-up with:
- “Into the Weird Adult Video Emporium”
- “The Colon Care Co-op”
- “Dr. Toews’ Wart Ointment Wholesale”
The market’s slogan for the campaign was simple and straightforward and imprinted at the bottom of the bag: “Avoid the shame. Bring a reusable bag.” And the goal of all of this was simple. As Mr. Kwen put it: “So many people own reusable bags but forget to bring them. We want to help customers remember their reusable bags in a way that will really stick.”
In Mr. Kwen’s mind, the goal was simple: Shame the customer into using a reusable shopping bag at his store. As Fast Company recently pointed out, shame is, and can, be used to change consumer behaviors. In fact, as their writer Eillie Anzilotti put it:
“Public shaming is one of the oldest tools to encourage swift behavior change, and that’s certainly what needs to happen when it comes to eliminating waste, and while warts, colon care, and weird adult videos aren’t anything to be ashamed about, that doesn’t mean you want to advertise them on your bag.”
And for Mr. Kwen’s part, he said that the message he was trying to send was that “we should make a conscious effort to save our planet one step at a time. Plastic bags are a big problem, and every step helps.”
Now the store’s effort did stick — and it definitely made news! And as can be seen in the Canadian news report on the campaign, while some customers did react to the shame in the intended way, others had a much different reaction that Mr. Kwen likely did not really anticipate.
Indeed, many patrons saw the bags as funny… and yes, that made them collectible — and desirable — well worth the five-cent cost of the bag for something you could show your friends… or maybe thousands of them on social media, making the bags go viral! I mean is it really any wonder that these bags sold out in the culture in which we live today?
The social media reaction was swift, and the “wisdom of the web” was that the bags were a hit — perhaps even too much of one! As one Twitter user put it:
And so, yes there were “unintended consequences” to the campaign, but ones that ended-up not only bringing a ton of publicity to Mr. Kwen’s store (just think of the ROI on that order of a thousand plastic bags!), but perhaps helped the anti-plastic cause in a variety of ways. As Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of the London-based Sustainable Design Alliance and speaking for the anti-plastic pollution group, A Plastic Planet, explained that the campaign’s backfire “was actually a great piece of anti-plastic P.R.” specifically because of the attention that it garnered. He recently told the New York Times that:
“These sorts of initiatives which strike a chord with consumers and are shared millions of times have a huge effect on big businesses. It keeps the topic being discussed in boardrooms and it spurs them on to reduce plastic from their supply chain.”
The East West Market case might also teach a valuable “lesson learned” that other businesses — and perhaps even non-profits and government agencies — should heed as they undertake demarketing campaigns to influence consumer behaviors, which we will analyze in the concluding section of this article.
The bags worked… too well!
It is interesting to note that Philip Kotler in that same “Age of Demarketing” article cautioned that a “demarketing campaign might make the product or service more desirable… banning a book or movie often has this effect.” (emphasis added) Think about it. The classic parenting mistake is to tell a teenager how bad something is for them — that only motivates them more to smoke, drink, vape, get a tattoo, date THAT boy, etc. In the same way, many times, by labeling a product or a service as “too extreme,” “too dangerous,” “too obscene,” etc., demand actually is created by all the buzz around that something!
Perhaps the classic marketing examples of things being “too much” are movies that took on the life of Jesus Christ in ways that some Christians objected to — and some REALLY, REALLY objected to, all of which only increased their popularity, their viewing, and yes, their earnings! From “The Last Temptation of Christ” to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and even to Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” such movies capitalized on boycott efforts to encourage people not to go see them to increase the interest in the films and ultimately, the number of folks who actually saw them in theaters or in their homes.
And oh how very right Kotler proved to be in the case of the East West Market’s novel plastic bags! In a New York Times article on the store’s anti-plastic bag campaign, Dr. Sabine Pahl, a professor of psychology who works with the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, stated: “The problem is that the messages are not so negative and shameful. They are quite funny, so people probably think it is quirky to carry the bags.” For his part, Mr. Kwen told The Guardian that in the end, his plan was successful, and yes, while the consequences were indeed unintended, they were no doubt positive for the store, as he stated:
“Some of the customers want to collect them (the bags) because they love the idea of it. Even if you have the bag, you have to explain its origin to your friends. And then, we’ve started a conversation…It’s a double-edged sword. We wanted to address an issue, but we’ve also made something popular, so it’s turned out great.”
And so yes, in the end, the campaign was a bigger “win-win” than Mr. Kwen could likely ever have imagined in his wildest dreams — if you do believe that this was not all in his “masterplan” to create bags that would go viral and generate tons of attention and publicity for him and his store (and yes, for my part, I do!). For a single-location grocery store in Vancouver to have been Googled and written about in leading newspapers and business publications around the globe about its shopping bags is indeed quite remarkable, even in the social media age in which we live today!
However, the big takeaway from all of this, in my opinion as a strategic management professor and consultant, is that you can be just a bit too clever in demarketing efforts such as the one in this case. If publicity is the main goal of such an effort, then this campaign certainly generated it — for the store and for the cause.
And yes, Mr. Kwen’s plastic bags now have had worldwide influence and have hopefully reminded many of us about the importance of actually using those resuable shopping bags that are in our homes, our apartments, our offices, and yes, our cars! Perhaps lost in the humor and virality of all of this though was the actual goal of not seeing a thousand more plastic bags end up in a landfill! And while some of Mr. Kwen’s bags will end up being held onto by customers as conversation pieces — which they are, some — perhaps even most of these specially printed plastic bags will end up lingering in a Canadian landfill for decades, perhaps for centuries.
So, humor and shame do have a definite role to play in demarketing efforts aimed at encouraging sustainable behaviors and discouraging, even extinguishing activities and practices that are particularly harmful. Just maybe run these ideas by a few folks first! If they snicker just a bit too much around the room or the conference table, well, then you may have created a collectible and not something that could be optimally effective as a demarketing tool.
But make no mistake, David Lee Kwen deserves a great deal of credit for taking what could have been just another routine order for plastic shopping bags and turning it into one of the great marketing — and demarketing — moments of recent times! And going forward, Mr. Kwen plans to have the same three fake store labels printed on reusable shopping bags for his customers, so the campaign will live on.
About the Author
David Wyld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.
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