Introduced by Thaler and Sunstein in 2008, nudges have become popular policy tools to change the behaviour of consumers and citizens in desirable ways without compromising their freedom of choice. Their success in public policy domains has sparked the interest of management teams to apply nudges in organisations as means to guide the decisions of employees. However, in comparison to the ever-growing literature on the use of nudges in the public sphere, relatively little is known about their applicability at the workplace.
More and more organisations are pursuing corporate social responsibility and sustainability strategies, for which changes in workplace behaviour are key. Nudges can help organisations promote the needed behavioural change in relevant domains, such as employee health, energy conservation, green transportation, waste management, ethics and diversity, to name just a few. A number of studies report, for example, success in promoting healthier food choices of employees through alterations in the choice architecture of workplace canteens. Other nudging interventions have led to reductions in electricity use by providing feedback to employees on the desirable behaviour of peers. Regarding workplace diversity, evaluating job candidates jointly rather than separately has proved to promote gender-mixed teams. Further, in the ethical domain, honest employee behaviour appeared to rise by reminding people about their shared moral values at critical decision points.
The mentioned examples provide an idea of the potential of nudges as cost- and time-efficient alternatives to traditional organisational intervention tools that mostly involve trainings and sanctions with limited success. A key advantage of nudges is their behaviourally informed approach, acknowledging the role of unconscious decision processes that often contradict people’s good intentions.
By altering the choice environment rather than trying to rewire the human brain, nudges can steer employees to desirable behaviours while preserving their freedom of choice.
Just recently, the United Nations Behavioural Science Week has convened experts from international agencies, governments, academia and the private sector to discuss about these possibilities. However, what has also been recognised, as much as workplace nudging involves opportunities, it comes with challenges that need to be addressed.
The first question that one might ask is how nudging individuals inside organisations for specific concerns leads to impactful organisational change in line with strategic corporate goals. Theory tells us that this is possible indeed by nudging a significant amount of employees. Organisations are made up of people. When enough people are nudged to alter their behaviour in a specific way, the new behaviour has the potential to become a norm, i.e. a rule for expected and accepted behaviour. Once embedded in the culture of an organisation, people are likely to conform to the new norm, so that organisational behaviour changes as a whole.
This idea comes with a caveat though. Organisations are complex social constructs with formal and informal components of organisational culture conveying a variety of messages to employees. A gentle nudge might thereby not be strong enough to induce the desired behavioural change. Signals elsewhere in the organisation could simply counterbalance the effect of a choice-preserving nudge. Typically, nudges are designed and tested for very specific instances of human behaviour. What works in one context might not work in another one, sometimes even resulting in unintended consequences. Clarifying the effectiveness of nudges is difficult in complex organisational settings, particularly regarding their impact in the longer term. This requires consequent piloting and testing over considerable periods of time, allowing for a flexible and adaptive approach to a particular setting.
Contrary to the idea of nudges being top-down policy tools, successful intervention implementation in complex organisational choice environments requires the active contribution of employees. The latter should be consulted about their needs, involved in the design of nudges and informed about the intervention implementation. A high degree of transparency is also necessary to ensure the acceptance of nudges by employees.
Another aspect to keep in mind is that widespreadorganisational change, such as switching from a solely profit-oriented corporate performance to a more encompassing economic, social and environmental one, cannot be addressed by nudges alone.
Complex organisational problems need to be broken down into micro pieces, suited to be managed by a variety of measures and instruments. Not all of the resulting aspects will have human behaviour at their core. Some might be fundamentally technological in nature, requiring innovative technical solutions. For those problems that remain to be behavioural, the ones that involve serious risks will always call for stringent enforcement tools. Others, however, might be better addressed through a voluntary, trust-based approach. This is where choice-preserving nudges come into play. Clearly, a single nudging intervention can only address a very specific concern. The wider organisational success depends on the aggregate of multiple nudges as well as their interplay with other policies. Measures ultimately need to send consistent messages about desirable behaviours, aligned with an organisation’s broader strategic goals. By influencing organisational culture in an encompassing way, widespread organisational change will gradually take place.
Venema, T., & van Gestel, L. (2021). Nudging in the Workplace. In R. Appel-Meulenbroek, & V. Danivska (Eds). A Handbook of Theories on Designing Alignment between People and the Office Environment.
About the Author
Leonie Decrinis is PhD fellow at Copenhagen Business School with research interests in corporate social responsibility, sustainability governance and behavioral sciences. Her PhD project focuses on applying behavioral insights to corporate sustainability in order to align governance objectives with organizational behavior.
It is widely acknowledged that a plant-based diet is healthier than an animal-based diet (Willett, et al. 2019). However, a group of Japanese researchers recently published a thought-provoking article demonstrating that a lower diet-related Greenhouse gas emission (GHGE) has generally resulted in an inadequate nutrient intake among Japanese adults (Sugimoto et al. 2020).
Their results seem to support the fact that the Japanese Government has excluded any dietary-related initiatives from its long-term national strategies concerning the targeted 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In other words, Japanese opinion leaders seem to challenge the generally accepted viewpoint of a direct positive correlation between a sustainable diet and a healthy diet, contradicting widely accepted European studies and initiatives (e.g. Sjörs et al. 2017). This apparent controversial observation motivated me to look into the historical development of meat consumption on a global scale. Most importantly, the recently published guiding principles by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019 state that “Sustainable Healthy Diets” are a trade-off between the two dimensions: sustainability and healthiness of diets. Thus, countries should decide on such trade-offs in consideration with their situation and goals (FAO & WHO, 2019).
The following figure indicates such a trade-off situation for various geographical regions and it clearly shows that the meat consumption in Western countries is obviously higher than the rest of the world such as compared to e.g., Africa or Asia, although a substantial increase of meat consumption is observed in both China and Japan.
In particular, the main increases observed in China and Japan seem to be well-synchronized with the periods of their respective economic developments that simultaneously triggered their modernization (Westernization) process in their markets. However, the curves of Japanese and Chinese meat consumption also show a noticeable difference. Whereas the meat consumption in China has steeply increased since the 1980es, Japan seems to moderate its increase from the early 1990es and ahead, which is most likely explained by their respective economic developments. However, in this blog, I want to supplement these observations with some personal insights on what has happened in Japan during this period through my work experiences in the related industry.
During the Japanese bubble economy in the 1980es to the early 1990es, the Japanese middle class had increasingly wider opportunities to be exposed to the Western food culture due to their Westernization. This somewhat alarmed key Japanese health professionals, nutritionists, food experts and industries who considered a ”Western lifestyle and food culture” as a source of lifestyle-related chronic diseases e.g., diabetes 2 and cardiovascular issues, which would gradually impact Japanese consumers.
This subsequently triggered a countless number of initiatives aimed to nudge a wide range of the population towards a healthier diet. The initiatives were eventually formalized as a Health Promotion Act in 2002 and the Basic Law on “Shokuiku (food and nutrition education)” in 2005 by the Japanese government (MAFF, 2019).
The Shokuiku act has since become a comprehensive program targeting everyone from school children to the elderly, and its initiatives have involved a broad range of Japanese stakeholders, not only the central and local governments, health professionals and nutritionists but also food and restaurant businesses and their consumers.
The Shokuiku program has promoted the nutritional education from a holistic viewpoint and emphasized the importance of enjoying healthy meals from societal and cultural perspectives through various sensory food experiences. As a consumer researcher in the 1990es in one of Japan’s largest high-tech companies producing various kitchen appliances, I also personally participated in a variety of initiatives involving consumer organizations, health professionals, nutritionists and food and restaurant businesses to nudge consumers towards a healthy diet at that time.
In a European context, nudging consumers towards a sustainable and healthy diet usually implies the replacement of an animal-based diet with a plant-based diet with emphasis on ingredients. One major difference to the Japanese nudging initiatives is that the Shokuiku promotion has encouraged consumers to learn how to select “nutritionally balanced meals” in their daily life while enjoying variations in sensory food experiences. Consumers have many ways to achieve this by following the “Japanese food guide spinning top” that can be easily followed by a wide range of population groups, i.e. from school children to the elderly (see the below picture). The maintenance of a moderate meat consumption level observed from the Japanese curve in the above figure might be partially attributed to such ‘enjoyable’ Shokuiku initiatives (see Yoneda, 2019).
Japan has been able to moderate its overall meat consumption without specific promotions of plant-based diets also thanks to the traditional Japanese food culture that is originally rooted in a plant-rich diet. Thus, in a Japanese context, it is perceived possible to achieve a well-balanced diet while simultaneously enjoying variations in sensory food experiences, in other words, nudging a healthy diet can be perceived as an enjoyable experience. Interestingly, Kanemoto et al. (2019) recently reported that meat consumption only weakly explains the difference between high- and low food carbon footprints (FCF) among 60,000 Japanese households. This study ponders that Japanese should (also) consider restricting their consumption in other areas than meat consumption with a higher estimated FCF such as restaurant foods, confectionary and alcohol.
These observed trends indicate the importance of fully understanding social, cultural and dietary contexts in various countries and regions when researching on sustainable food consumption because food is inherently deeply rooted in the specific cultures. In other words, sustainable consumption studies should ideally shed more light on an emic approach addressing a specific sample of that region and discuss adaptability of such studies to countries outside of the specific region with due respect of the embedded cultural contexts.
About the Author:
Fumiko Kano Glückstad is Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Cognition at the Copenhagen Business School. She works in the area of cross-cultural psychology and her recent project “iBeauty” funded by the third largest Japanese cosmetic company investigates associations between personal values, beauty and well-being in cross-cultural contexts. She previously worked as a consumer researcher and product concept designer of kitchen appliances at Panasonic Corporation, one of the largest Japanese electronics industry enterprises.
The fashion industry has repeatedly come under fire for its negative effects on the environment. With heightened attention towards the climate crisis and scandals highlighting the industry’s social shortcomings (Rana Plaza, 2013), more and more ‘native’ sustainable fashion brands have emerged. However, parallel, we witness a trend towards ever-increasing consumerism. Frequently, Black Friday is seen as the epitome of consumerism which raises the question: How do sustainable fashion brands approach the biggest shopping day of the year – Black Friday – and how do consumers perceive these campaigns?
We reviewed Black Friday Instagram posts by self-claimed sustainable fashion labels and found they can be conceptualized along two axes: (1) the level to which consumption is encouraged / discouraged, and (2) the degree of action taken by a brand to express its commitment to sustainability. This conceptualization accounts for existing societal marketing strategies, particularly Demarketing, Green Marketing, and Cause-related Marketing. On the one hand, the brand Raeburn closes its shops and urges consumers to use Black Friday to repair their clothing rather than buying new items (Demarketing). On the other hand, the brand People Tree promotes 30% off everything claiming that consumers should “add some green to [their] wardrobe” (Green Marketing).
Business-as-usual, a revolution, or planet-saving purchases – what is actually authentic?
By interviewing 20 consumers, we found that they judge authenticity by inspecting various cues that are leveraged to identify authenticity drivers. For example, donating to WWF (Cause-related Marketing) yielded legitimacy for TwoThirds’ Black Friday campaign. Authenticity is a complex concept – it is multidimensional, subjective, dynamic and socially constructed. Multidimensionality implies that one cannot answer “what is authentic?” precisely; it is an interplay of different attributes. In our case, respondents described an advertisement as authentic when it was credible, relatable, congruent, original and/or impactful. Next, subjectivity means that what is authentic for one person is not necessarily authentic for another. Influential consumer characteristics are a person’s general scepticism towards advertising, level of environmental concern, and understanding of sustainability, resp. do we simply need less- or better/greener consumption to mitigate climate change?
“and it’s kind of a contradiction: ‘Please shop to help the planet’ and I think you can’t shop and help the planet at the same time. So less or no consumption is at all times the best option” (Consumer 1)
“you’re using capitalism to make the world a little bit better. And I think in my eyes, that’s a good strategy to go for” (Consumer 2)
Third, authenticity perceptions can change over time, for example upon new information. Last, authenticity does not exist as a stand-alone concept but is always sensitive to societal changes.
What does this imply for marketers of sustainable brands?
Black Friday is a dynamic context in which brands have to actively reflect on their communication strategy and respective consumer authenticity perceptions. Consequently, no communication strategy shows clear advantages or can be labeled ‘most authentic’. We advise brands to reflect on:
Their standpoint regarding Black Friday
The needs of their target group
The statement they want to make on Black Friday
The tone they want to adopt in their campaign
Sustainable brands increasingly embrace creative ways to distance themselves from the traditional Black Friday, e.g. by closing shops, ‘selling rubbish’ or even raising prices. It remains unclear, however, whether these forms of brand activism reflect a brand’s honest opinion or are employed as a tool to stand out.
We also observe brands who are holding their customers responsible: on Black Friday 2020, Armed Angels let buyers choose between a higher discount or rainforest protection. After Black Friday, the brand revealed that the majority of their customers had chosen the higher discount, which raises the question:
Can consumers be held responsible for making more mindful purchase decisions or is increased action by companies and governments needed?
Upon stating its disappointment about the outcome, followers accused the brand of shaming their customers for choosing higher discounts. This translates to another relevant consideration for sustainable fashion labels – choosing the right tone. While radical messaging conveys urgency and appeals to environmentally concerned consumers, others feel opposed to it and, instead, want to be involved in dialogues. Again, this shows that when it comes to Black Friday, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution – rather, brands should take time to think about their values and how they can make a meaningful difference on Black Friday 2021.
Throughout the interviews in our study, multiple consumers shared with us how they were inspired by campaigns of sustainable brands and respectively questioned their purchase decisions. This demonstrates that sustainable brands’ communications can actually exceed Black Friday and have lasting effects – not only on their brands’ perceived authenticity but also on our planet’s future.
About the Authors
Nina Böntgen is a recent graduate from MSc Brand and Communications Management program at Copenhagen Business School. Next to her studies, she was actively engaged as team lead and board member of oikos Copenhagen, a student initiative driving change towards greater sustainability. She’s happy to share further insights or engage in discussions on the post or the broader thesis (how sustainable brands navigate authenticity and greenwashing) via email (email@example.com) or Linkedin.
Sara Derse is a recent graduate of the Msc Brand and Communications Management program at Copenhagen Business School. Fascinated by the topics of consumer psychology and purpose branding, she was involved in the sustainability-focused student initiative oikos as a Project Manager. She is happy to discuss her thesis (consumer perceptions of fashion brands with a purpose centred around sustainability) in further detail via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Linkedin.
Meike Janssen is Associate Professor for Sustainable Consumption and Behavioural Studies, CBS Sustainability, Copenhagen Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behaviour in the field of sustainable consumption, in particular on consumers’ decision-making processes related to sustainable products and the drivers of and barriers to sustainable product choices.
Even before COVID, people have spent more and more time online. Particularly mobile devices have become a large part of our daily routines and for many there are few moments when the phone is not within direct reach. While studies have shown that even teenagers think they waste too much time online, surprisingly little is done to stop this trend.
But how did we get here? Several dovetailing factors enabled this development and give me little hope that this trend will slow down any time soon. While technological advancements in mobile internet and device components were necessary conditions that allow for an easy and enjoyable interaction with platforms and services at all times and places, the real champions of compulsive internet use are social and data scientists driven by monetary incentives and unrestrained by a lack of proper ethics training.
Despite the frequent regrets about the many hours wasted on the internet, people are struggling with self-regulation and apps, like “RescueTime”, with to sole purpose to block oneself from using other apps are becoming increasingly popular.
While internet addiction has not been officially recognized as a disorder by the WHO, close parallels can be drawn to officially acknowledge gaming and gambling addictions.
And this is certainly no coincidence as tech companies hire psychologists and designers to make their products and services as tempting as possible, frequently borrowing elements from the gambling industry. However, even though some tweaks based on the knowledge of capable social scientists will increase user engagement, much more can be learned about consumer behavior and how to manipulate it through the application of the scientific method itself. The use of experimentation, collection of big user data and application of machine learning algorithms are the big guns in the fight for user attention and their money.
All these efforts are used to make social media more “engaging” but ultimately sales and advertising campaigns more effective. To do so, user interfaces and features are explicitly designed to grab attention and contain what has been termed as “dark patterns”. Design elements that often tap into the subconscious decision-making processes and therefore manipulate user through purposefully curated interfaces. While such practices benefit the company, they can have detrimental effects on individuals and society as a whole.
We know that individual choices reflect individual preferences only under certain conditions, including the absence of deceptive choice architecture or marketing messages. Hence, I can’t stop wondering about the opportunity costs and side-effects of these miraculous little devices in our pockets that have grown into an ugly hybrid between a snake oil salesman and one-armed bandit.
We have free markets based on the belief that they create value for society and make people better off by efficiently satisfying their needs. The recent U.S. opioid scandal has shown that for some products, sellers’ profits might not be positively related to consumer value. It certainly gives me pause that the best offline equivalent to the “RescueTime” App is probably the Betty Ford Clinic.
We are faced with many pressing issues that would require our full attention, while people are increasingly plagued by credit card debt, the planet is suffering from overconsumption and we spent 30,000 years alone, watching Gangnam Style on YouTube.
Regarding the larger point that any efforts against these trends would hurt innovation, jobs and growth; let us take one step back and point out that the Western world has made it an imperative to ensure individual property rights and outlaw the use of violence with the explicit goal to increase investment and productivity. People can just do more good stuff, when they do not have to spend time protecting their property and family. Given our current technology and knowledge from the behavioral sciences, I think we have seen enough and should start treating distraction and manipulation as similar threads to human flourishing.
So, what could we do? In the short run, we need to find ways to reduce the stream of big data feeding these efforts, force these practices out in the open and raise awareness about their use and effects, and find effective regulation to limit manipulation efforts in a dynamic attention economy. In the long run, we probably need to go beyond those patches as these issues not only hurt individual lives and careers but also the fabric of our democracy.
We recently published a paper showing how users can be manipulated through dark patterns to provide more data:
Jan Michael Bauer is Associate Professor at Copenhagen Business School and part of the Consumer & Behavioural Insights Group at CBS Sustainability. His research interests are in the fields of sustainability, consumer behavior and decision-making.
It is not news anymore that a change of consumer behavior is needed in order to have a chance at mitigating climate change. Almost every consumer action today can be quantified in terms of environmental impact. We know that we should opt for the tofu sticks instead of the steak at our neighbor’s barbeque, and we know that we should avoid the all-inclusive vacation to the Caribbean and take a cozy camping trip at Denmark’s beaches instead. What we don’t know is what those behavior changes mean for consumers. What are the consequences for our individual quality of life and well-being?
Self-sacrificing for the planet
The expectation does not seem to be very satisfying. Most of us have heard the word “sacrifice” in the context of environmentally friendly behavior before. The message we receive from climate activists, journalists and researchers is very clear:
We need to change our behavior today to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change tomorrow. We need to change our behavior for our children, the animals, other people in other countries, or our own future lives – even if we don’t want to.
We are expected to change our behavior for the greater good, while our own desires have to wait in line [1, 2].
This sacrifice narrative cannot only be found in climate change communication but also in consumers’ minds: When investigating what was hindering consumers to act environmentally friendly when they generally value the environment, the expectation of sacrifice and lowered quality of life was found to be one important factor . Consumers seem to equate environmentally friendly behavior with a loss in quality of life and comfort. This anticipation, among others, prevents them from changing their behaviors and joining in the efforts of mitigating climate change.
Why is this important?
While altruistic motivation – driving us to self-sacrifice for the greater good – is positively related to environmental behavior , it can only get us so far. Another main driver of our actions is egoistic motivation. And as it seems, behaving more environmentally friendly is not perceived as a particularly egoistic action. While there sure are people with very strong altruistic motivation who enjoy behaving in a morally right way, many people are egoistic some or most of the time.
If the perspective of an environmentally friendly life is a bleak one, environmental engagement will be limited.
This is not only relevant for individual consumer behavior and environmental engagement, but also for policy and activism. When an environmentally friendly life seems bleak and uncomfortable to many people, it will be a difficult task to get them on board. Why would I support or vote for somebody who wants my life to become worse right now as a tradeoff for a potentially less catastrophic future?
Aside from elections, citizens who equate environmentally friendly behavior with sacrifice and lower well-being may also have lower acceptance of necessary policy interventions aimed at mitigating climate change. Consequently, the necessary change towards more environmentally friendly consumption will be hard to realize without considering its effects on well-being.
Does it have to be sacrifice?
Is it even true that environmentally friendly consumption can be equated with sacrifice, discomfort and a bleak existence?
Contrary to what the public opinion seems to believe, the relationship between well-being and environmentally friendly (or unfriendly) behavior is empirically not yet clear.
Some correlational studies even suggest the opposite: a positive relationship between environmentally friendly behavior and well-being [e.g., 5, 6]. These studies find that people who behave environmentally friendly are more satisfied with their lives. We cannot infer any causality of course – but these findings at least challenge the sacrifice assumption. This means that there may be a discrepancy between consumers’ expectations and the reality of behavior change. The sacrifice assumption might therefore not only be unhelpful in engaging consumers to behave differently, it may even be completely untrue.
What does that mean for us environmental researchers? We need to explore why consumers expect negative consequences of environmental behavior change and how to change that. We need to understand what these negative expectations are exactly. We need to take consumer well-being seriously and keep it in mind when designing behavior change policies and initiatives. And we need to rethink how we communicate about environmental behavior change and climate change mitigation.
Laura Krumm is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication and a member of the Consumer & Behavioural Insights Group. In her PhD project she explores the intersection of environmental consumer behavior and well-being.
Lessons learned from the responsible behaviors of individuals during the Covid-19 crisis
By Fumiko Kano Glückstad
The Covid 19-crisis has had – and still has – a very serious impact on a global scale. The New Normal guideline published by WHO  suggests that the responsible behaviors of individuals during the Covid-19 crisis have a critical impact on how a country is able to control the spread of infection. However, the reactions of individuals to aspects of the New Normal such as “social distancing” and “wearing a mask” have been considerably diverse depending on who they are and which society they belong to .
Who they are?
To overcome a challenge like the Covid-19 crisis, but also e.g. the long-term crisis on climate change, socially responsible behaviors from individuals are required. Roughly speaking, such behavioral changes may be motivated by four types of personal value priorities : i) anxiety-free values, ii) anxiety-based values; iii) personal-focused values; and iv) social-focused values (See the Figure).
Socializers and social control agents discourage values that clash with the smooth functioning of significant groups or the larger society. Values that clash with human nature are unlikely to be important. The basic social function of values is to motivate and control the behavior of group members (Parsons, 1951). Two mechanisms are critical. First, values serve as internalized guides for individuals; they relieve the group of the necessity for constant social control. Second, people invoke values to define particular behaviors as socially appropriate, to justify their demands on others, and to elicit desired behaviors. Socializers seek, consciously or not, to instill values that promote group survival and prosperity.
Schwartz, 2012, page 12
This statement is highly relevant to the two aforementioned challenges: Covid-19 and climate change.
Let us for instance think about the economic situation that the Covid 19 crisis has brought upon the tourism and experience economy (EE) sector. In order to thrive and secure the jobs of the employees involved in the sector, the EE sector needs to maintain a certain number of tourists visiting its destinations. On the other hand, society needs to prevent further spreading of Covid-19. Hence, the responsible behaviors of individuals expressed in association with their travel activities play a crucial role in maintaining the EE businesses.
However, individuals’ attitudes to traveling and to the Covid-19 crisis substantially differ, and manifest in different behaviors. For example, some individuals may prefer to enjoy traveling because they prioritize “personal-focused” values, seeking to fulfill their hedonistic needs, their needs of self-expression and to obtain a sense of achievement. Such internalized personal values may trigger a negative reaction to the constant social control enforced by Covid-19. On the other hand, a person inclined to “social-focused” values may instead tend to choose socially appropriate behaviors required to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Which society they belong to?
While the value priorities of individuals within and across societies may differ, cultures also influence the formation of selves. Markus & Kitayama’s  phenomenal theory, ‘Culture and Self’, defines the independent and the interdependent self-schemas that demonstrate “how sociocultural contexts can shape self-functioning and psychological functioning (Markus & Kitayama, 2010, page 425)”.
Kitayama (2001; 2010) explain that:
When an independent schema of self organizes behavior, the primary referent is the individual’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Alternatively, when an interdependent schema of self organizes behavior, the immediate referent is the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others with whom the person is in a relationship.
Markus and Kitayama, 2010, page 423
Accordingly, feelings of happiness also differ depending on whether a person is rooted in a culture emphasizing the independent or interdependent self-schemas .
Specifically, in North America happiness may most typically be construed as a state contingent on both personal achievement and positivity of the personal self. Negative features of the self and negative feelings are thus perceived to be a hindrance against positivity and happiness. In contrast, in East Asia happiness is likely to be construed as a state that is contingent on social harmony and, thus, on a balance among different selves in a relationship.
Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama 2004, page 227
Following the arguments of the aforementioned East Asian cross-cultural psychologists, the formation of value priorities might have been influenced by such culture-rooted self-schemas. Thus, the value priorities and culture-dependent self-schemas of individuals become important factors when scholars do research on sustainable and responsible consumer behaviors. In other words, if the mechanism of feeling happiness is fundamentally different between the independent and the interdependent cultures or between the social- or the personal-focused individuals, the motivations for behaving in a socially responsible way may substantially differ.
Socially responsible reaction to the New Normal
existing individual and cultural differences may cause us to think about the definition
of “socially responsible behaviors” in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.
Wikipedia, “social responsibility” is defined in the following way:
Social responsibility is an ethical framework and suggests that an individual has an obligation to work and cooperate with other individuals and organizations for the benefit of society at large. Social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems. A trade-off may exist between economic development, in the material sense, and the welfare of the society and environment…
viewpoint, the Covid-19 crisis could be an excellent opportunity for
individuals to exercise “socially responsible behaviors” for the benefit of
society, i.e. in order to return to a Covid-19 free society. However, it generally
seems that the young generation of Scandinavians who have been world-leading in
sustainable behavior changes have been less engaged in the socially responsible
behaviors encouraged during the Covid-19 crisis. What we have learned from the
Covid-19 crisis is that the cultures emphasizing the interdependent self-schema
have had a smoother path to the New Normal behaviors.
An Australian writer, Paul De Vries posted his interesting observation of the Japanese people’s reactions to Covid-19 in Japan Times :
A stumbling block of the “assumption of carrier” countermeasure is that it requires people to endure discomfort for the sake of the collective good, despite the likelihood of being COVID-19 free. Persuading a critical mass of the population to accept such an imposition is a challenging task, especially when new case numbers are in decline.
Three of the motivating factors that induce Japanese nationals to adhere are courtesy, obligation and shame. Courtesy is the willingness to act out of genuine concern for others. Obligation involves placing the needs of the group before those of oneself. Shame is fear of what others might think if one does not comply to group or societal norms.
There is no shortage of courtesy among the silent majority of the West, as unlikely as that can sometimes seem. A sense of obligation also exists, but typically toward groups less large than society as a whole. Shame, on the other hand, is not a dominant Western trait.
Cultural sensitivity and diversities in the measuring of sustainable development
The diverse reactions to the Covid-19 crisis observed in the past months are good examples demonstrating a need “to prepare a new cultural map of developmental goals, and to create and adapt development indexes that are more culturally sensitive”.
However, the mapping of cultural differences is not enough to capture heterogeneities of the respective societies. Here, the individuals’ value priorities play in. The theory of basic human values by Schwartz  implies that individuals prioritizing the “self-transcendence” value, for example, might be more prone to engage in the socially appropriate behaviors specifically required to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In order to effectively implement a policy for the various sustainable development goals, a new cultural map integrating the heterogeneities of societies will become necessary. In this way, a policy maker could distinguish messages suitable for the respective target segments and optimize their effects on the citizens’ responsible behaviors.
The recent development of machine learning technologies has made it possible to classify populations into such personal value typologies, to describe who they are, and to predict how they will respond to various situations . In our project, UMAMI (Understanding Mindsets Across Markets, Internationally) , we developed a workflow and methodologies to investigate such heterogeneities of societies based on personal value priorities. It would be interesting to explore how these can be exploited in various application domains addressing the sustainable development goals in the coming years.
Fumiko Kano Glückstad is Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Cognition at Copenhagen Business School. She works in the area of cross-cultural psychology. She has developed a workflow and methodologies enabling data-driven segmentation and typological analysis of consumers based on their personal value priorities in close collaboration with the Section of Cognitive Systems, DTU Compute at the Technical University of Denmark during the UMAMI project (2017-2020) funded by Innovation Fund Denmark. She previously worked as a consumer researcher and product concept designer of kitchen appliances at Panasonic Corporation, Japan and as a Japanese market specialist at Phase One A/S, Denmark.
As the global Covid-19 pandemic spread through Europe and North America, companies raced to communicate how they were responding to the crisis. Advertising that focuses on a company’s response to humanitarian crises is hardly new. Every holiday season features a parade of brands touting their seasonal partnerships with charitable causes. Yet these exercises in “Covid-branding” struck a particular nerve with both consumers and media commentators because so many of the brands stuck to the same script. Quickly that script even became the subject of satire.
‘The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle.’
Amanda Hess, The New York Times, May 22, 2020
These patterns are important. In the uncertain early weeks of the pandemic, as governments were still crafting their responses, the stories brands told played a role in shaping how the public made sense of the crisis. What kind of a crisis was it? What sort of solutions did it need? What role should business play in delivering them? Covid-branding offered answers to those questions.
In this briefing note, we present a preliminary analysis of Covid-branding by companies in Europe and North America during March and April 2020. Our analysis finds that messaging clustered clearly into two ways could engage: ‘Covid-helping’ and ‘Covid-coping.’ These messages of ‘managing the pandemic’ and ‘managing yourself’ frame the consumption of goods and services as a way that consumers can show they care, presenting shopping as a form of everyday heroism. In this way, they make the case that private sector has a role to play in humanitarian response.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on the global economy. Measures to combat the spread of the virus, including border closures, and national lockdowns affecting one-third of the world’s population, shut down much industrial production and pushed white-collar professionals to remote work. These measures, coupled with a fall in consumers’ own confidence in response to the health crisis, contributed to rising unemployment, falling consumer activity, and the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
This context, with consumer activity declining overall and shifting from closed stores to online retailers, placed pressure on brands to compete for a share of the smaller e-commerce pie. At the same time, the recession placed pressure on marketing professionals to demonstrate their relevance at a time of overall corporate retrenchment.
We focus our analysis on online communications, especially social media output. Social media marketing is often informal in tone and crafted quickly to respond to real-time events, so that brands can ride the waves of attention paid to viral news stories, from royal babies to sporting events.4 Most research about this practice has suggested brands choose to focus on positive or neutral stories to avoid mistakes, as humorous tweets about a serious event can backfire. That makes Covid-branding in the early weeks of the pandemic, when infection and death rates were rising, unusual.
We also examine promotional emails and newsletters, a form of content marketing. Content marketers have begun to develop more journalistic skills, including as storytellers and explainers of complex phenomena, and indeed many former journalists are employed as content marketers. Covid-branding, in which brands help consumers make sense of the emerging crisis, is an example of this phenomenon.
These online forms have not received much attention from researchers of corporate humanitarianism, which has focused on more traditional forms of print and broadcast advertising. We hope that this brief typology of how marketers used these newer forms in the Covid-19 pandemic encourages further research into these formats.
Covid-branding as Covid-helping
Brands that emphasized their role in helping to manage the pandemic did so in distinct ways. To understand this, we considered two aspects of each marketing message: First, whether companies are making an engaged or disengaged intervention. Companies which are engaged use their own business capacities toward the Covid-19 cause. Second, we consider whether companies are claiming to directly or indirectly impact the Covid-19 crisis itself. We investigate whether the brand claims to address the medical situation (direct) or indirect societal outcomes of the pandemic, including economic impacts.
The four modes of engagement
Direct Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into directly fighting Covid
Some companies with core operations in the fields directly linked to fighting the pandemic (i.e. health care or logistics companies) quickly began communications around their role.
This Novo Nordisk Facebook advertisement shows healthcare workers holding up a sign reading “Thanks” in Danish. Novo Nordisk is a leading pharmaceutical company. Photographs of healthcare professionals at work in Novo Nordisk-made protective gear signaled company’s direct engagement.
Examples of countries where these products are in use underscores that the company serves a modern, global, and racially and gender-diverse group of professionals. Other direct engagement included shipping company Mærsk tweeting about “Mærsk Bridge,’ an air bridge and supply chain operation to transport PPE to healthcare workers.
Indirect Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into indirectly managing Covid
Since direct business engagement was only possible for companies whose core business was in medical or logistical operations, many companies emphasised managing indirect societal impacts of the pandemic in their early response.
As a food and drinks business with a national supply chain, Starbucks was able to use its core capacities to address indirect economic impact of pandemic on food supply. Promotional email highlights corporate donations of 700,000 meals to food banks and use of company logistics network to assist foodbanks with transport.
Makes the case that hunger “is part of the crisis” to underscore relevance of this indirect engagement.
Other indirect engagement included Draper James, the American actress Reese Witherspoon’s fashion brand, announced on its Instagram account on April 2, donations of dresses for teachers (deemed essential workers during pandemic); campaign backfired when dress supplies ran out.
Direct Disengaged: Business helps others directly fight Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to medical needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the Cover crisis.
A promotional email from Camper highlights the use of 3D printers from its manufacturing operation to produce medical visors. The Email also highlights donations of shoes and slippers to staff and patients in hospitals.
Camper does not claim that they are themselves engaged in work to combat the medical crisis, but rather that they are making resources and equipment available to others who can do so.
Other direct disengaged examples included fashion brand Armedangels making cloth masks while explicitly stating on Facebook that they could not protect the wearer – “we can’t produce medical masks” – but that 2 euro from the sales of each mask would be donated to Doctors Without Borders, or gas company Crusoe Energy Systems announcing that they were donating computing power to Stanford University coronavirus research.
Indirect disengaged: Business helps others indirectly manage Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to urgent economic or societal needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the impact of the Covid crisis.
Instagram post by crowd-funding platform GoFundMe promoting that its platform can be used by consumers to identify causes to support. Following the link to “learn more” shows company also offering free consulting to nonprofits on how to raise additional funds.
The company is not mobilizing its own resources to support Covid-related causes, but rather facilitating donations to other organizations through information sharing. Such consulting activity is not an ordinary part of the company’s core business.
Other indirect disengaged examples included Facebook offering grants for small businesses in the United States and using its network to promote the existing loan program from the US government.
Covid-branding as Covid-coping
Many brand engagements we examined did not make any claims to be helping combat the crisis, or its social impact, at all. Rather they focused on helping individual consumers to cope with the circumstances surrounding the crisis and its personal impact on themselves.
Because these “Covid-coping” messages focused on helping individuals, rather than society or the economy, our analysis focused on the demographics of what kind of consumers each type of “coping” message addressed, as well as what the messages said. We identified three coping mechanisms brands sold to consumers in these Covid-coping messages: coping-through-practicality, coping-through-pleasure and coping-through-denial.
Like indirect Covid-helping, it portrays shopping as way to address consequences of the pandemic, but instead of focusing on consequences for society, it targets how consumers can address their own needs.
An Instagram post by Zoku, a real estate company managing coworking spaces, offered private office rooms for professionals needing a socially distant office away from their household. Emphasis is put on a spare and clean layout of the office and “peace and quiet” for workers.
It suggests appeal to professionals with children struggling with disruption to work practices in shared family homes. Coping-through-practicality engagements largely addressed themselves to consumers in their identities as professionals and parents.
Other coping-through-practicality examples included laptop manufacturers advertising tools for working from home; home furnishings brands advertising tools for cooking at home; and phone, internet and electricity providers advertising their services as essential infrastructure for remote working and home-schooling. Marketing of this type emphasizes how brands could help families and businesses carry on “as normal” during a period of crisis.
Exclusively comprised of brands in the fashion, fitness and lifestyle industries, with messages targeted to young and predominantly white women; present luxury goods as means of coping with pandemic through ‘self-care’.
A promotional newsletter for the “athleisure” brand Jolyn depicts a slim and muscular white woman on an inflatable pool float wearing sunglasses and painted toenails. Sunlight appears to reflect off the body of water in which she floats, with a caption advertising a “Bikini for staycation.” The Image and caption present the lockdown, which compelled individuals to stay home from their usual recreational activities, as a “staycation,” an unexpected source of free time at home.
Other coping-through-pleasure messages included advertisements from fashion brands including Anthropologie and Nicole Miller advertising loungewear as “self-care style” and clothing for “virtual dates or happy hours,” as well as make-up brands offering online tutorials for those with “more time (inside) on our hands.”
These messages present the health crisis as an opportunity for women to take a “break” from work outside the home and relax with home-bound versions of their usual recreational activities. They draw on influencer culture, which depicts recreation as a full-time occupation. Coping-through-pleasure offers the chance to purchase some of the influencer lifestyle, where the pandemic is not a stressor, and one can escape at a moment’s notice to a sunlit pool.
Targeted widely to all consumers, these messages suggested that consumers shop as though the pandemic were not taking place, or advertised products which made light of the pandemic.
A full page newspaper advertisement in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s mostread newspaper, on 7 March, by two Italian ski resorts, Bormio and Livigno, captioned “Live the mountain with full lungs: There’s a snowy place where feeling great is contagious!”
At the time of advertisement running, lockdown was dissuading tourists from traveling to Italy, putting pressure on ski resorts, while deaths from the respiratory virus – which kills by targeting the lungs specifically – were at their highest in northern Italy, where ski resorts are concentrated.
Other coping-through-denial advertisements included Passports, a travel rewards program, contacting members in mid-March, when concerns about virus spread were focused on cruise ships, to advertise “the best pricing and exceptional bonuses” on celebrity cruises, and online retailers of topical and humorous T-shirts advertising limited range clothing with coronavirus-related captions. Notably, these engagements came broadly from the early weeks of our sample, and brands appeared to shy away from explicitly seeking to make light of the crisis or encouraging consumers to travel in spite of it, by the end of March 2020 when more severe lockdown and suppression measures were in place across Europe.
Implications for Brands
The different types of early Covid-branding in our sample, whether they focus on helping or coping with the pandemic, offer some cautionary lessons for brands.
About Commodifying Compassion
‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ is a research project focused on understanding how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism. An international team of researchers funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (2017-2021), we examine ethical consumption intended to benefit humanitarian causes from the perspectives of consumers, businesses, NGOs and recipients. The research will produce a better understanding by humanitarian organizations and businesses leading to more ethical fundraising, donors weighing consumption-based models as part of more effective aid, and consumers making more informed choices about ‘helping’ by buying brand aid products. To learn more about our work, visit the website.
Maha Rafi Atalis a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School, where her research focuses on corporate power, corporate social responsibility and corporate influence in the media. She is a co- Investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. http://www.maha-rafi-atal.com
Lisa Ann Richey is Professor of Globalization at the Copenhagen Business School. She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes. She is the principal investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. https://www.lisaannrichey.com
Photo by Colton Vond, “Obey Consumerism,” March 3, 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.
CBS is involved in two large-scale international studies about people’s changes in food-related habits during the pandemic
By Meike Janssen
It might sound familiar: Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, photos of homemade bread, fancy meals and desserts are circulating on social media while empty pizza cartons are piling up in the neighbours’ garbage bin. It seems that many people have changed their food-related habits during the pandemic, partly in opposite directions.
That is why consumer researchers from the Consumer and Behavioural Insights Group (CBIG) at CBS Sustainability launched two large-scale consumer studies  in collaboration with international colleagues. The studies analyse the shifts in terms of buying, cooking and eating habits that have been brought on by the pandemic and the related restrictions and lockdown measures.
Food-related behaviour is to a large degree subject to habits and routines. Changes in eating patterns are normally occurring rather slowly over longer periods of time.
Besides, we know that food consumption is largely influenced not only by personal preferences but also by context, i.e. where we eat and with whom we eat.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been experiencing the unprecedented case that many people have spent much more time at home. That also means many people have eaten more meals at home than before the pandemic. Now, we are beginning to understand what consequences these changes in the context of food consumption have had, e.g. in terms of how (un)balanced the diets have been or whether people’s cooking skills have improved.
Our data was collected at the end of April / beginning of May 2020 among more than 1.000 consumers in Denmark. The food frequency questionnaire revealed a number of interesting trends. Depending on the type of food, 10-45% of consumers changed their consumption frequency during the pandemic compared to before. In all food categories, we observed diverging trends with some people having decreased and others increased consumption. We observed the highest rates of change in the categories frozen food, canned food, and cake and biscuits, while the lowest rates of change occurred in the categories bread, dairy products, and alcoholic drinks.
For all types of fresh food analysed, the proportion of people who had decreased their consumption was higher than the proportion of people who had increased consumption, i.e. the overall average consumption of fresh food significantly decreased during the pandemic. The consumption of sweet snacks, by contrast, significantly increased.
Partly, the observed changes in food consumption can be explained by decreases in food shopping frequencies. As expected, a decrease in shopping frequency was significantly related to a decrease of fresh food consumption and an increase in the consumption of frozen food and canned food but also of sweet snacks.
We further found significant effects of restriction and lockdown measures on changes in food consumption, i.e. the effect of the closure of:
cafés and restaurants
schools and kindergartens.
While it is not surprising that these restrictions impacted upon people’s food consumption, we were surprised to see that those people affected by the same restrictions were likely to change their consumption of certain types of food in similar ways.
For instance, people affected by a closure of their physical workplace were likely to decrease the consumption of bread, cake and biscuits. Families with children tended to increase the consumption of fruit and veggies, presumably in a pursuit to eat more healthily. At the same time, they also increased the consumption of bread, sweets and chocolate, and alcoholic drinks, perhaps as a means to cope with stress.
Single-person households, by contrast, tended to decrease their consumption of fruit and vegetables and fresh meat, probably because they ate less cooked meals. They also tended to decrease the consumption of bread, and sweets and chocolate.
The results demonstrate that the relatively strict restrictions and lockdown measures in spring 2020 affected different people and households in very different ways. While some people spent more time with meal preparation and cooking, others did the opposite.
The results provide insights, e.g. for the areas of healthy eating, food system resilience, and behavioural change. We are currently compiling recommendations for decision-makers in the food sector on how to prevent detrimental effects of the pandemic on people’s food-related habits. Key insights of the two studies will soon be published in scientific journals.
Meike Janssenis Associate Professor for Sustainable Consumption and Behavioural Studies, CBS Sustainability, Copenhagen Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behaviour in the field of sustainable consumption, in particular on consumers’ decision-making processes related to sustainable products and the drivers of and barriers to sustainable product choices.