Children are the future and bringing about behaviour change

Hamsini Shivakumar and Kanika Yadav of Leapfrog Strategy Consulting write that brands now need to find softer ways to make inroads into culture and construct stories that provide inspiration and practical ways to bring about behaviour change in the citizenry when it comes to sustainability

Hamsini Shivakumar
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Defined simply, the future is a time period yet to come. Depending on our purpose, we codify the time to come, differently. It can mean a time of upcoming plans, hope, and excitement. Often it can mean the opposite, the future is marked with uncertainty.

From an environment and sustainability point of view, the future of our planet looks grim and almost destroyed. When the future is positioned on the brink of extinction, it automatically paves way for a plea to save the future. But will a rational and logical plea that says ‘save the future because it is threatened’ be effective? Maybe, but only to a few.

Enough research into human psychology has shown that for people to take action, all messages have to strike an emotional chord, they must have an emotional value. They also need to reference something concrete and tangible.  The challenge for Sustainability communication to move people to action is that climate change is too far out into the future, and people are preoccupied with their day-to-day affairs.  That ‘future’ when the world will be worse is too abstract and intangible.

Therefore, many sustainability narratives and communications bring an emotional pull as well as tangibility to the distant future, by featuring children. Children represent the future of the family, the clan, the community, the nation, and ultimately the world.  This is a universal truth, accepted by all. Adults of today, who are also parents, have a responsibility to their children to leave the world a better place for their children. They need to ensure that their children are not worse off in the future, than their parents are, in the present.

Let’s look at a few recent examples to study how brands have used the concept of children as the future, to make their environment, sustainability and climate change narratives hit home.

1. Breathe India: Origami | Disney Hotstar

For Environment Day 2022, Disney Hotstar released a video that draws a direct link between air pollution and its consequences on the future. It tries to convince people to drive less - “the more you drive, the less he does” meaning the more a father (older generation) drives, the more pollution is generated for his son (younger generation). Every day that the exhaust is released from the father’s car, the child’s breath gets shorter and he is not able to blow his cardboard car all the way to its shed. 

2. World Environment Day | Nickelodeon India

Kids’ network Nickelodeon showed a brief animated video where trees from a kid’s drawing begin to disappear as his mother disposes of sheets of paper. Almost immediately, animals and birds begin to enter their home in a Jumanji-like fashion. But the reason behind this is not a fantasy game but the cutting down of jungles. The kid urgently explains the home invasion to his mother - the loss of the natural habitat suffered by animals.

3. Jaago Re to Fight Climate Change | TATA Tea

‘Jaago Re’ once again features the pair of a parent and a child. True to the brand name ‘Jaago Re’, the son in the video literally wakes up his father by switching off the air conditioning. The rest of the video comprises the dialogue that the two of them have about rising temperatures and its impact on the child’s future.

4. Doorway to Green | TATA Pravesh

Doorway to Green depicts a short experiment with two different groups- the first one consisting of adults and the second one with small kids. Both of them are set a task of using crayons to draw scenes from nature. But here’s the twist: there is one set of crayons that is to be shared between the two groups. The crayons once used by the first group cannot then be reused by the second group i.e. the second group has to make do with the left-over colours. The results are poles apart both in terms of colour and imagery: the first group comes up with landscapes of lush and bright green with water flowing through and flowers blooming but the second group left with colors such as black, grey, and brown comes up with landscapes marked by smoke, soot, and pollution.

The inference from the comparison is drawn by adults themselves.  They realise that their choices have been dominated by their own selfishness and the crayons could’ve been shared or even left in a more judicious manner. The crayons in the video are a metaphor for resources and hence the message: if the present generation is not wise about the usage of resources, the kids might not be left with a lot.

The Way Ahead

So, as far as the construction of an effective plea goes, positioning kids at the centre of a hopeless future ticks all the boxes. Presenting children as inheritors of leftovers can move consumers to move toward sustainable consumption patterns. Making children the activists leading change can make it harder for adults to resist.

However, children as the voice of the future has been a well-worn narrative trope for quite some years now.  And this symbolism has perhaps reached the end of its useful life. So, what next?

One answer could arise from culture, from trying to embed or integrate the sustainability message into the responsibilities that parents are expected by society to carry out, vis-a-vis their children.

Indian culture dictates that a parent takes care of the child from conception till at least the wedding and maybe till the birth of their first grandchild. The cultural responsibilities of parents entail giving one’s child a good education through school and college, getting them married at the right age, and then making sure that they have children so that the future of the clan is assured. 

Since these duties and obligations of parenthood are defined by cultural convention, they are taken to be natural and hence fulfilled without exception. Therefore, if somehow, we are able to add adult responsibility towards a clean and green environment to the list of cultural responsibilities - we might be able to enhance the effect that a plea to save the environment has. In such a scenario, a sustainable world gets added to a child’s inheritance and then parents are supposed to work towards building one as hard as they work towards securing a financial inheritance.

To be able to do this, brands can take stances ranging from the Shaper stance to a Progressive Stance as discussed in our ebook on Branded Content (available for free download here This means that in addition to anchoring their messaging in culture in a direction that changes the mainstream culture, they are supposed to envision or mirror aspirations and the audience’s lived culture. They need to imagine and normalise a culture where people aspire towards a sustainable environment whether for inheritance or otherwise!

Some illustrative examples of such a culture would include starting a small urban forest or planting some trees in the same fashion as parents & grandparents begin a trust fund on the birth of a child.

Brands can for instance do a creative interpretation of this real-life happening:,a%20girl%20child%20is%20born. Other examples can include a depiction of a will - reading where children literally inherit the land which is full of trees, water bodies and such resources.

It is our view that brand communication around the environment has been in the Activist Stance for so long that it might have stopped having the desired effect on people. It may be so that audiences are now used to watching a grim depiction of the future and it doesn’t register or affect them as much. So, brands now need to find softer ways to make inroads into culture and construct stories that provide inspiration and practical ways to bring about behaviour change in the citizenry when it comes to sustainability.

Kanika Yadav Leapfrog Strategy Consulting Hamsini Shivakumar behaviour change Children