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Unilever reveals influencers can switch people on to sustainable living


Average read time: 3 minutes

A new study examines how brands can harness and maximise the power of social media influencers to positively impact consumer behaviour.

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London - Unilever, alongside a cohort of eco-conscious influencers and behavioural scientists, today announce the results of a first of its kind examination of the role of influencer content in impacting sustainable choices. The experiment was created in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the world’s first government institution dedicated to applying behaviour science. To put activist influencer social media content to the test, BIT built a simulated social platform that showed people various styles of content, and measured the resulting behaviour change of 6,000 UK, US, and Canadian consumers.

The results showed that influencers have thesingle biggest impact on people’s green choices today. True for 78% of people, it is far ahead of TV documentaries (48%), news articles (37%) and even government campaigns (just 20%). In fact, 83% agree that TikTok and Instagram are helpful places to seek out advice on how to be greener at home, validating the importance of social media as a valuable tool in helping to make sustainable living commonplace. This was even higher (86%) for younger participants (18-34), highlighting the greater importance that future generations are placing on living sustainably.

Dove and Hellmann’s - two of Unilever’s largest brands - commissioned the content, alongside experts from across the business, which aimed to encourage the two most impactful behaviours on an individual’s carbon footprint: using less plastic, and wasting less food.

The study content tested was created to be either:

  • Pragmatic – characterised by an emphasis on the scale of the problem behaviour, expansive and far-away consequences, and a heavy use of data and statistics, or
  • Optimistic – characterised by practical demonstrations of how to live sustainably, emphasis on the benefits to the individual, and a surprising, often humorous tone

The results revealed that both styles of content are effective in nudging people to adopt sustainable behaviours. In fact, 75% of people said that content made them more likely to adopt sustainable behaviours, including saving and reusing plastic, buying refillable products, and freezing and reusing leftovers. When measuring actual behaviour change, the study shows that people value both facts and practical advice. Of those who watched ‘pragmatic’ content, 69% went on to try something new to reduce their plastic or food waste as a result, with 61% of those who watch ‘optimistic’ content reporting action.

Branded content was viewed as just as engaging, authentic and informative as the unbranded content, with participants supportive of social media creators making sponsored sustainable content. Eight in 10 (77%) support creators encouraging their audience to behave in an environmentally friendly way and seven in ten (72%) support them selling products or services focused on sustainability. Seven in ten (76%) were encouraged to act after watching Dove plastics reuse content and 8 in 10 (82%) after watching Hellmann’s content on food waste reduction.

Conny Braams, Unilever’s Chief Digital & Commercial Officer, said: “People are finding it hard to make sustainable choices due to a lack of simple, immediate and trustworthy information. Our ambition is to continue to collaborate with our partners to improve the sustainability content produced by our brands and support the creators we work with. Together, we are learning what is all likes and no action versus content that makes sustainable choices simple and preferred.”

Professor David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, said: “This study is a world-first of its kind and the largest online controlled trial to test the effect of different styles of social media content. The behaviour change potential of social media is clear and the results show that there’s huge opportunity, providing fertile ground for further exploration in this space.”

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