12/12/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2014

Project Sunlight and the Journey to Intrinsic Values

Unilever's innovative Project Sunlight platform has attracted lots of blogosphere attention and sometimes criticism. The headlines of the criticism are that Unilever fails to fully recognize the distinction between the consumer and the citizen -- between extrinsic and intrinsic values and between real well-being -- needs and created consumer "wants." Without making this distinction, the argument goes, brands are not going to successfully take their customers on a journey to more sustainable and flourishing lives.

This blog gives the highlights of a longer think-piece I have written which examines these questions in more detail.

The best customers are citizens not consumers.

In Citizen Renaissance we describe a consumer-citizen continuum. At one end of this sits an archetypal "perfect consumer" whose life is largely mediated through and dominated by what are know as extrinsic values, like financial success, prestige, authority, individualism and materialism. Think Loadsamoney crossed with Gordon Gekko.

At the other end of the spectrum is the "perfect citizen" whose life is mediated through and dominated by intrinsic values like community, affiliation to friends and family, connection to nature, concern for others, social justice and creativity. Of course few of us perfectly exhibit the characteristics of either of these extremes, and in fact we know from the values-circumplex work of my colleague Dr, Tom Crompton, Change Strategist at WWF, and of Professor Tim Kasser, that we all have a mix of these values in our make-up. It is largely things like upbringing, advertising and societal norms which mediate where we sit on the spectrum or circumplex.

The "perfect consumer" has a lower well-being than others, lowers the well-being of those around them, has a higher than average environmental footprint and is more closed than others to pro-social and environmental behavior change messaging. The "perfect citizen" has higher than average levels of wellbeing, lower environmental footprints, and are far more open to pro-social and environmental behavior-change messaging.

So, to be a sustainable company, you certainly don't want "perfect consumers" as your typical customer. You want to take customers on a journey to being closer to the "perfect citizen." In short you need to think of them, and treat them as if they are citizens not consumers.

Understanding this distinction in values will support development of products, services and brands that help take current and prospective customers on a journey towards these sets of citizen-centric values and maximize the ecological efficiency of well-being-needs satisfaction.

An added dividend in terms of brand relationships is that these intrinsic values are long-held and deep-held, whereas extrinsic values are fickle, short-term and shallow. So if you want a deeper, more durable brand relationship with your customers, you really want to be communicating in intrinsic terms.

How does Project Sunlight measure up?

Some of the messaging on the Project Sunlight platform is indeed talking to us as citizens and tapping into and reinforcing intrinsic values and wellbeing-enhancing practices. Take the "spend quality time together" story that resonates with well-being vectors like "connect" in Nef's five-ways-to-well-being, and to "community," "participation" and "love" well-being needs in Professor Manfred Max Neefs nine-ways-to-well-being. In values terms the messaging around "spend quality time together" connects to intrinsic "benevolence" values like love, friendship, loyalty and spiritual living. Other messages in the Project Sunlight portfolio link to intrinsic "universalism" values like respecting nature and social justice.

So there is much in Project Sunlight that is heading in the right direction. But critics are saying that Project Sunlight ultimately suggests we can shop and consume our way to utopia, that it mixes calls to action associated purely with the consumer side of our psyche in with more progressive messages. It is suggested that this risks undermining the overall effect of the Project Sunlight campaign and set up a cognitive dissonance which at best will freeze us into confusion and inaction, but more likely send us scurrying back into what we know - extrinsically orientated consumerism, atomized, individualistic actions and the hedonic treadmill.

This is echoed in a blog on Project Sunlight, talking of the "incoherence of Unilever owning both Lynx/Axe and Dove," which concludes "It is possible for brands to talk to us as citizens, and build loyalty and value by treating us with that level of respect. But Unilever are not doing so yet."

Many people seem to be saying they are left with a "so what" feeling after taking a good look at Project Sunlight. Not only does it often speak to us as consumers rather than as citizens and fail to take us consistently and clearly on the consumer-citizen values journey, it also seems to make the mistake of thinking that, despite the evidence, a "small steps to save the world" approach can be effective.

Don't get me wrong. I personally think Project Sunlight is innovative and an important step in the right direction. But, as with everything, it can be improved. My feeling is that, without being based on a systematic and consistent understanding of the implications of values and well-being and how they relate to behaviors, Project Sunlight will under-leverage its potential to transform not only Unilever but to redefine the rules of the game for corporate responsibility and sustainability.

In the think-piece which this blog is based on we suggest a number of ways that initiatives like Project Sunlight can understand these issues and become more effective at the consumer-citizen journey.