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Effective Sustainability Messaging Should Be “Awesome”

Kathryn A. Johnson, Richie L. Liu, Elizabeth A. Minton, Darrell E. Bartholomew, Mark Peterson, Adam B. Cohen and Jeremy Kees

Sustainability is no longer about doing less harm. It’s about doing more good.

Jochen Zeitz, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of The B Team and Founder of the Zeitz Foundation for Intercultural Ecosphere Safety

Leaders in the private, public, and civic sectors increasingly agree about the need for business to adopt sustainable business practices that would benefit the natural environment and local communities. Often, support for such practices originates in people’s worldviews and religious beliefs.

Recent research in Journal of Public Policy & Marketing by Kathryn Johnson, Richie Liu, Elizabeth Minton, Darrell Bartholomew, Mark Peterson, Adam Cohen, and Jeremy Kees investigates drivers of this relationship between religion and sustainability as well as support for sustainable policies. Specifically, these researchers explore whether consumers’ concept of God as authoritarian, as loving, or as mystical might explain their support for sustainability initiatives. The results suggest that representing God as a mystical force is most effective.

Findings from several studies, sponsored in part by the John Templeton Foundation, disclosed that people were less likely to feel a connectedness with nature when reminded of the attributes of a loving, person-like God. One explanation for this is that people may conceptualize a divine hierarchy descending from God to angels, humans, animals, and nature, in that order. In such a hierarchy, nature can be regarded as created merely for use and disposal by humans.

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In contrast, the researchers found that focusing on the concept of God as limitless (e.g., “vast,” “infinite,” “boundless”) or mystical (e.g., “nature,” “energy,” “cosmic force”) was associated with feelings of unity with nature. The researchers then showed that experimentally inducing awe—with videos of the vastness of the galaxy—led people to think of themselves as less significant and to focus on the relatively more abstract attributes of God as a limitless or mystical spirit. Importantly, people who had experienced awe also reported more positive evaluations of nature and greater support for sustainability initiatives.

The researchers suggest that marketing communications that inspire awe or self-transcendence are effective in boosting support for sustainable consumption behaviors as well as intentions to support environmentally oriented policies at the ballot box. Examples of ways for marketers to create such communications include mentioning words or including visuals associated with awe in marketing communications or policy messaging (e.g., “awe,” “connectedness with nature,” “energy,” “cosmic force”).

As with any consumer behavior, emotions can be a positive or negative influence on attitudes toward sustainability. Messages that instill fear or convey divine commandments may be ineffective or unintentionally backfire where sustainability efforts are concerned. Instead, marketing efforts should emphasize the sacred quality and value of the natural world as well as focus on the positive emotion of awe. This is important because changing the views of even some individuals in a social network can have a snowball effect, fostering positive attitudes toward the environment in the whole group.

There is much work that can be done in the realm of sustainability. For example, reducing carbon footprints of all human activity remains a priority for curbing climate change. Simply reducing food waste could be one way to markedly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Improving water, soil, and air quality continue to be leading issues for sustainability as well.

Promotional materials that effectively depict the vastness of nature and outer space align with many viewers’ representations of God as a mystical force. As a result, “awe-some” promotional materials would be more effective.

Article Citation

Kathryn A. Johnson, Richie Liu, Elizabeth A. Minton, Darrell E. Bartholomew, Mark Peterson, Adam B. Cohen, and Jeremy Kees (2017), “U.S. Citizens’ Representations of God and Support for Sustainability Policies,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 36 (Fall).

Kathryn A. Johnson is Assistant Research Professor, Arizona State University.

Richie L. Liu is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Oklahoma State University.

Elizabeth A. Minton is Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Wyoming.

Darrell E. Bartholomew is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Penn State Harrisburg.

Mark Peterson is Professor of Marketing, University of Wyoming.

Adam B. Cohen is Associate Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University.

Jeremy Kees is Professor of Marketing, Villanova University.