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Changing consumer water usage by appealing to local and group identities

Local content and appealing to group identities can have a greater impact on changing consumer water usage than simply promoting a general environmental conservation message.  

Research undertaken by the UK-based University of East Anglia has highlighted the importance of working with local communities and focusing on a social identity approach to create permanent changes in behaviour. 

Dr Vittoria Danino, Head of the Anglian Centre for Water Studies at the UEA explains, “one of our PhD students, Ellin Lede, undertook a study that looked at the psychological ways of helping communities to reduce water consumption. We looked at different ways of engaging with customers in a specific area around Newmarket [in Suffolk, United Kingdom]. The UEA and Anglian Water partnered with Glaxo Smith Kline to try out a number of initiatives.”

The project focused on methods of communication and the wording on documents to assess the impact on consumers. 

Anglian Water had been offering consumers the opportunity of a home visit from a water saving expert who could make bespoke recommendations on how they could save water. The challenge was to encourage a higher sign up rate.

Anglian Water allowed the researchers to modify their existing consumer letter to include a social identity appeal involving the words ‘Norfolk says’.  

The letters were sent out to over 2000 homes, randomly chosen to receive either the standard or the modified letter. The sign up rate of the modified version proved to be more than double that of the standard letter. 

Other aspects of the study investigated how abstract water saving concepts could be made more understandable on a local basis.  

It set out to link conservation messages with local buildings and community areas. A typical message promoted around Newmarket read:

“If everybody in Newmarket turned off the water when brushing their teeth, it would save enough water to fill the clock tower nearly five times every day.”

This message proved very memorable, encouraging consumers to change their habits. Incorporating such a visual image made it instantly understandable, appealing to the local community, rather than a more abstract image of saving water.

A similar project was undertaken at the UEA itself, based in the student halls of residence.  

It set out to test the ability of the social identity approach by encouraging students to save water by taking shorter showers.  

The message was printed on waterproof stickers placed in ensuite cubicles. It stressed the importance of the UEA student social group norms, and contained an illustration of a university mascot. Results demonstrated that the in-group norms appeal did significantly reduce the time spent within a shower.

Psychologist Dr Charles Seger, a lecturer at the UEA, was one of the supervisors working with Ellin.  

“Social norms encourage people to think about and undertake individual behaviour change. A shared approach, a local approach adds value, and provides self-efficiency,” he said.

“By using the words ‘Norfolk says’ in letters, it makes it immediately more personal, more influential. It is their community, not just an official organisation. Consumers feel part of the group participation and are willing to do something for it, showing that psychology can become a powerful facilitator of behaviour changes.”

The greater importance that a person places on group membership as part of their social identity, the more likely they will be to follow the norms of the group.  

The researchers found that the success of the water saving messages was particularly effective among those who strongly identified with a particular group.

Social influence approaches can prove cost effective, and lead to substantial reductions in water demand, but it is a strategy often underestimated by water managers.  

Writing in the report, Applying social influence insights to encourage climate resilient domestic water behaviour: Bridging the theory-practice Gap, Ellin concludes,“ developing a comprehensive strategy to address the challenge of water scarcity requires innovative new approaches and will require water managers to draw on every tool in the box.”


About the author: Angela Youngman writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world. 

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