Editorial: Follow the crowds

Marketers keen to assess how consumers are adapting their behaviours in the face of the threat from climate change must cast an eye in the direction of Ryanair.

The week after the publication of the government's Stern Review on the economics of climate change, the budget airline announced a 23% increase in traffic and a 39% rise in post-tax profits to £220m for the six months to the end of September - a period in which it claims to have incurred losses of £3.3m due to the summer terror alerts.

The Stern Review, despite the many uncertainties detailed within its 600 pages, is unequivocal in its conclusion that we must act now to avoid environmental catastrophe in the future - a message that much of the mainstream media regurgitated with alarmist glee.

So far, at least, there is little to worry about for Ryanair, easyJet, Thomas Cook or any of the other mass-market travel operators currently being targeted by environmental campaigners for their significant contribution to carbon emissions. It seems that their customers will be happy to continue buying up cheap weekend flights to Barcelona until such time as their own previously inland homes become sub-tropical seafront properties.

One recent survey by YouGov found that while 56% of people are worried about the environmental impact of air travel, only 13% have changed their behaviour as a result - none of them, presumably, Ryanair customers. Extrapolating similar percentages for other industries opens up the very real option for businesses to do as little as is required to reduce their carbon impact.

The trouble for short-haul discount airlines is that required action is banging at their door in the form of increased passenger taxes to offset environmental impact. Passed on either in part or in full, such charges raise the very real spectre of negative price elasticity and an incandescent Michael O'Leary. However hard it is to stomach, selling the benefits of carbon-neutral air travel to customers early may be a winning strategy.

It is easy to postulate that the only meaningful drivers of environmental consumer behaviour are impact on wallet and social stigma. Take as evidence October's new car registrations, as reported by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders: diesel registrations up 5.4% to a year-high of 41.7%, with an 8.4% rise for superminis. This was attributed to higher motoring costs and a change in emissions standards, with preservation of the planet as an unrecorded and, presumably, secondary concern.

Many in this industry make the easy mistake of forgetting that the Prius-driving recycler of potato peelings is far more likely to be a neighbour than an actual consumer of their products, and therefore listen to the wrong voices.

The value that marketers bring is in wheedling out truths and insights from research and data that reflect what consumers are actually doing and in which direction they are going. From this it is possible to identify a future direction for a business that may otherwise have pursued an 'if it ain't broke' strategy to customer retention; a direction that finds consumers who are willing to pay more for the ethical product or service, not because of what Sir Nicholas Stern and his team believe, but because of what their friends and family think.

Flying in the face of logic, page 16.

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