Skiing, Mountain Biking, & Suntans

What marketers get wrong about motivation & sustainable behaviour change.

People are selfish 

Public awareness for environmental issues has never been higher thanks to a combination of fantastic television programmes and work done by environmental pressure groups. But getting people to change their behaviour (and not just claim that they have) is tough. In most cases people don’t personally feel threatened by climate change. They accept that climate change is a global problem, but they are unsure what impact it will have on them - as a concept, climate change is perceived as vague, abstract, and difficult for most people to understand. Marketers have tried scaring people into acting, but the results are mixed at best. 

So how do we make climate change feel more real? The answer is simple; talk about the local impact of climate change, (and not what it will do to some distant corner of the world). Unfortunately, people are selfish and our attempts to persuade them should reflect this but this is not all bad news. It just means that we need to understand what people care about. If we know that somebody is interested in skiing, research has shown that talking about how climate change is putting their ski holidays at risk is more effective than general altruistic messages at changing behaviour. Or if somebody is a keen golfer, describe how climate change is going to threaten the local golf course.



Motivation and Sustainable Behaviour Change 

Currently more companies are launching sustainable variations of their existing products. But if they neglect the reason why people buy a product in the first place, they’re likely to fail. A great example of this is when a company launched a 100% natural biodegradable mountain bike chain oil. Mountain biking is a great way to explore the mountains, but despite not having an engine, it still impacts the environment. Oil flicks off the chain and soaks into the soil and so a biodegradable oil seemed to be the perfect solution. It performed just as well as traditional oils, but without any of the negative environmental impacts. However, from a sales perspective it was a total failure - and that was solely because of the marketing. The marketing focused virtually exclusively on the environmental credentials of the product and completely ignored people’s motivation for buying it in the first place - the ability to improve a bike’s performance and give a faster and more exhilarating ride. Sustainability may well be a great point of differentiation, but you still need to show customers that your product will perform.

Image from: Public Health Agency (

Understanding motivation is not only important when it comes to trying to convince people to buy sustainable products – it’s just as important when we are trying to change any behaviour and again, this is something that businesses typically don’t consider Most government campaigns trying to persuade young girls to stop using UV sunbeds, takes a condescending or lecturing based approach. They highlight the health risks associated with sunbed use with messages such as ‘sunbed use before the age of 35 can double your risk of skin cancer.

It’s a powerful statement and logically it should work, only it doesn’t. Education based campaigns may do a great job at increasing people’s knowledge about a topic, but it doesn’t translate into a change in behaviour. That’s because these messages completely ignore people’s motivation for using sunbeds in the first place. People want a suntan because they think it looks sexy; therefore if you want to persuade someone, it’s more effective to use a vanity-based message. Tell people that ‘using a sunbed will causes your skin to age prematurely’ or more emotively ‘How would you like it if you looked 50 when you’re only 25? If so, a sunbed might be right for you?’. It may sound obvious, but often things are only obvious in retrospect.

Closing thoughts…

Changing someone’s behaviour is tough, but in many cases marketers make life harder for themselves. They forget to put themselves in the target audiences’ shoes and create an ad that would work on them but they forget that ‘normal’ people don’t intentionally read or watch ads. Most of the time they’re actively trying to avoid them. Likewise, the target audience’s motivation for doing something (or not doing something) is going to be different from the marketers. Before creating a new campaign, it’s always worth understanding why somebody does something - the reason is often less obvious (and rational) than we may at first think 


Chen, F., Dai, S., Zhu, Y., & Xu, H. (2020). Will concerns for ski tourism promote pro‐environmental behaviour? An implication of protection motivation theory. International Journal of Tourism Research, 22(3), 303-313.

Corner, A. (2012). Evaluating arguments about climate change. In Perspectives on scientific argumentation (pp. 201-220). Springer, Dordrecht. 10.1007/978-94-007-2470-9_10 

Lamanna, L. (2004). College students’ knowledge and attitudes about cancer and perceived risks of developing skin cancer. Dermatology Nursing, 16. 161-4.

O'neill, S., & Nicholson-Cole, S. (2009). “Fear won't do it” promoting positive engagement with climate change through visual and iconic representations. Science communication, 30(3), 355-379.

Persson, S., Benn, Y., Dhingra, K., Clark‐Carter, D., Owen, A. L., & Grogan, S. (2018). Appearance‐based interventions to reduce UV exposure: A systematic review. British journal of health psychology, 23(2), 334-351.

Scannell, L., & Gifford, R. (2013). Personally relevant climate change: The role of place attachment and local versus global message framing in engagement. Environment and Behavior, 45(1), 60-85.

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