Consumers Will Save The World (If You Give Them Points)

Last summer, OgilvyEarth released Mainstream Green,  a significant study on why mainstream consumers weren’t buying into the green movement.

Mainstream Green noted that the majority of consumers were ‘light green’ and willing to act sustainably, but the incentives simply weren’t motivating.

I’ve written and lectured quite a bit on the topic, mapping out ideas that could flip the ‘green action’ switch. But none of these ideas had immediate stopping power – all relied on a slow incubation.

Then, at the GLOBE 2012 Conference, I spoke with Andreas Souvaliotis, President of AIR MILES For Social Change. With this company, Souvaliotis has created a program that incents consumers to act sustainably in numbers that made me sit down. What was the secret?

People Love Points

AIR MILES is Canada’s unofficial second currency. We can swipe our AIR MILES card with virtually any purchase, accumulating points towards prizes. It’s the oldest game-based marketing tactic in the book. And it works.

More than two thirds of Canadian households collect AIR MILES. Essentially the program appeals to all of ‘middle Canada’ – the only abstainers are the wealthy, who don’t value the gains of swiping or prefer collecting frequent flyer points, and the poor who simply don’t shop enough.

A few years back, LoyaltyOne (the company that runs the AIR MILES program) acquired Souvaliotis’ company, Green Rewards. From its Canadian base, Green Rewards had developed the world’s first points program aimed at driving more sustainable behavior. Points were gathered by purchasing products like fair trade coffee and organic cotton t-shirts, and rewards were products with a green pedigree.

The huge AIR MILES platform provided Souvaliotis and his team with two key advantages: instant access to the majority of Canadians, and the aura of a mainstream program.

The results have been impressive. Working with a transit authority to motivate consumers to buy annual passes instead of monthlies, the points company created a 57% shift in one month. A campaign to engage consumers in a utility’s energy efficiency program resulted in a 600% lift with costs per acquisition down 70%. Another utility program recorded a 95% drop in cost per acquisition. The cases go on and on.

Long story short: engage consumers with rewards they appreciate, and they’ll adopt green behavior in a heartbeat.

Is Consumerism Green?

The fly in the ointment is, of course, that encouraging consumers to buy green by rewarding them with more products is anathema to creating sustainable consumption.

Souvaliotis appreciates the paradox. He believes AIR MILES For Social Change helps get consumers over the green behavior ‘hump’, making them feel comfortable with green products. This invariably leads to experimentation with other sustainable behaviors – including more thoughtful consumption.

In addition, the program indirectly incents companies to create greener products by boosting consumption of those products. It demonstrates that there is a latent demand for green – all that’s required is the right key to unlock the consumer’s wallet.

Finally, Souvaliotis believes his program has done more to put green in the mainstream consumer’s head than millions of dollars of advertising ever did. In fact, his portfolio is filled with case studies where his loyalty program eclipsed the results of expensive ad campaigns.

Lessons To Green Brand Managers

  1. Consumers crave comfort – The majority of consumers in North America profess a desire to live more sustainably. But they haven’t found green products or services in their comfort zone. Piggybacking green on a mainstream points program boosts this comfort level.
  2. Make it a game – Consumers love winning. And while game-based marketing may seem like a hot new marketing fad, programs like AIR MILES have been around since the 1980’s, honing the game / challenge / reward concept to a fine art.
  3. Think outside the box – Advertising is a traditional solution for building loyalty and brand. But this isn’t a traditional situation. Adoption of sustainability is fraught with social, political and behavioral obstacles. To make a green product or service successful, you need to think of new solutions that can hammer through these barriers. Appealing to consumers’ love of consumption is one of those solutions.


Marc Stoiber is a creative director, writer, innovator and green brand specialist.   He consults with clients across North America. He also speaks and blogs extensively on trends that will influence the destiny of today’s brands.  He can be reached at