The art and science behind 7-Eleven's coffee cup recycling program

Head of brand explains the process of launching its coffee cup recycling and sustainability initiatives and the campaign execution supporting it

An elevation of 7-Eleven’s environmental credentials and growing coffee sales are just a few highlight results from the convenience store network’s ongoing efforts to deal with a growing need for sustainable coffee cup recycling.

7-Eleven head of brand, Lisa Birch, told CMO the company began looking into sustainability initiatives in 2016, when it realised as many as 80 million coffee and Slurpee cups were not being recycled nationally. While it took time, a combination of trends, including trials being conducted by other brands and consumer sentiment, saw the company prepare its own cup recycling initiative in partnership with Closed Loop’s Simply Cups program in 2017.

“We’ve looked at packaging for a long-time; coffee cups specifically and at the request of board and senior leaders. But we’ve never been convinced on claims of bio-degradeable and compostable cups,” Birch said.

“Yet with growing sentiment, we looked again. We’re no longer just a reseller of other’s products, we are putting our own product out there. We control and have a responsibility to ensure this packaging doesn’t damage the environment.

“I was able to show very strong correlation of key customer segments and their attitudes around the environment with perceptions of value, which is a key driver of NPS [Net Promoter Score]. We had also just launched our organisational values, one of which is to do the right thing. If we’re serious about an organisation value, then we need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Having seen Simply Cups’ inaugural six-week trials in Melbourne and Sydney, Birch produced a business case for the executive team, based on market volume. Six months later, as 7-Eleven finalised plans with Simply Cups for a pilot, the ABC’s War on Waste debuted on TV, galvanising the nation and raising general awareness of Australia’s environmental issues.

7-Eleven’s trial commenced in late 2017, with the official rollout of recycling units to 200 stores nationally undertaken between January and March 2018. This was supported by a national advertising and native content campaign from April 2018, dubbed ‘Come to the cup rescue’. Today, more than 500 7-Eleven stores offer coffee cup recycling.

“The key thing then, which still prevails today, is a lot of confusion over coffee cups being recyclable. But it’s confusion that extends to all recycling,” Birch commented. “We used to have more government education around recycling… There’s a whole generation that doesn’t know what goes into which bins and behaviour is sloppy. If you’re not reminded, you don’t recall those details.”

Disrupt, educate, facilitate

While the environmental philosophy was sound, Birch is the first to admit 7-Eleven’s program presented a tough communication challenge.

“We had to firstly dispel myths on coffee and Slurpee cups, then tell people why it was important to recycle properly and put them in a single stream, then where to do that, which was 7-Eleven,” she said.  

To help, the campaign was constructed around three areas: Disrupting and raising awareness of coffee cup myths; educating around the right recycling processes; then practically channelling people into stores to recycle.

“That in itself is a challenge, as we’re asking people to do something we are against – we stand for convenience, but this is a bit inconvenient,” Birch said. “But we are well-placed as we are so widespread in the daily path of life.”

Campaign execution was all about disruption, and included activity outside and inside the store. One example was roaming bicycles in hotspots CBD areas in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne at peak times over a three-week period, allowing consumers to recycle coffee cups onsite while interrupting them in peak hours.

All stores, regardless of whether they had recycling or not, were also part of a store takeover and 7-Eleven released limited edition green cups to further improve awareness of the issues.

A critical part of education, meanwhile, was 7-Eleven’s partnerships with News Corp Australia, encompassing native advertising, display advertising and sponsoring in-depth editorial talking about issues around recycling generally, as well as coffee cups specifically.

“News was key to the education piece and our work was built around branded and native content. But native content needed to come first in terms of showing the Australia-wide impact of waste,” Birch said.  

The brand also partnered with Urban List, and produced practical collateral highlighting specific sites where consumers could recycle their cups.

Science of success

To understand how impactful the education campaign work could be, News Corp and its measurement partner, Kantar, tapped neuroscience-based research to gauge consumer perceptions. These was based on Kantar’s context lab methodology across a controlled / forced exposure approach, using facial coding, eye-tracking and intuitive associations.

Through facial coding, Kantar found three peak moments of audience expression across the 7-Eleven program of work with News. These were realising you can’t recycle coffee cups conventionally; understanding it’s the plastic lining that stops recycling; and thirdly, that 7-Eleven has kick-started  a coffee cup recycling program encompassing 70 million cups worldwide.

The results showed the campaign increased the connection between 7-Eleven and all positive associations, notably on terms such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘trusting’, ‘relevant’ and ‘innovative’. Overall increases in intuitive positive association lifted 20 per cent, and exposure to content saw 24 per cent higher responses to the statement that 7-Eleven is a pioneer in coffee cup recycling.

Trust in the 7-Eleven brand also lifted 15 per cent across the control group. In addition, positive intent to purchase hot coffee from 7-Eleven increased by 11 per cent.

More broadly, Birch said 7-Eleven’s measurements showed one in four Australians had heard of its Simply Cups partnership, a huge achievement for a very low budget campaign.

“I’ve been delighted we’ve continued to invest in the 18 months since launch. When you can show strong correlation with our target core audience being motivated by image perception statements, such as this company cares about the environment, and that being related to key drivers of NPS, you can start to build the case for investment,” she said.  

“We had to be single-minded and focus around disruption, education and practical elements – we had to keep coming back to that. Partnerships and experience elements works well in that instance, as you start to get groundswell, word of mouth and shareability. And because we were first to market on this, we had lot of press coverage, which helps.”

In order to be truly credible to the intent, 7-Eleven needed to drive a behaviour change around disposal of the daily coffee cup, Birch continued. “We have become very creative in how we do that. You have to build credibility on that.”  

In line with ongoing disruption around this issue of environmental responsibility, for instance, 7-Eleven debuted and advertised a coffee cup, the rCUP, made from recycled coffee cups.

“On its own, it’s not something we’d put money behind, but as it’s part of the wider story and journey to understand the issue, we could justify spend there,” Birch said. 

Twelve months after going live and believing interest was starting to plateau, the brand then did a tram takeover campaign. “Again, it’s a big statement. Picking one execution, doing it well and staying focused was key for this project,” Birch said.

In August, 7-Eleven gave away coffee for one month to consumers who brought in their own cup.

“Again, it’s a critical underlying part of us being credible in this area, because the best thing is to use your own cup; it’s about wider sustainability around your daily coffee,” Birch said. “It was a highly creative way to drive awareness of this issue while aligning to our strategy of being the number one coffee provider in Australia.”

Wider internal and external impact

For Birch, key measures of success include master brand impact, active consideration of coffee and value for money of coffee – all of which are stronger off the back of this work.

“Perceptions of your brand’s environmental position do play into that,” she said. “We’re also looking at usage of reusable cups and track these to see who is using these cups, and we’re seeing a shift there. Also there’s a rise in cup recycling figures, and rolling out to more stores.”  

Next campaign iterations for Birch will include exploring what happens once cups have been put in a 7-Eleven recycling bin. The idea is to show customers the full journey on the cup, to give reassurance that what it’s promising is happening, she said.

“The work has made us think about what we’re going to do sustainability more generally,” Birch added. “Campaigns can only be born out of truth, especially when it comes to brand. We will continually challenge ourselves to be creative on this issue, but we also need to keep thinking about what’s next to keep pushing this behaviour forward.”

For any effort of this nature, you firstly must have leadership support, Birch said. “Our executives were excited from day one. If anything, they were pushing for faster change,” she said.

“The second thing was our retail operations group. This had an operational impact on every store and there was no revenue attached to it. That’s a hard thing to sell to franchisees and partners who need to make money from initiatives. We had to have the retail team on-board to do that.

“Thirdly, the organisation became very excited and people were talking about sustainability initiatives in meetings and corridors. There was pride in this initiative. Doing things genuinely right will generate its own momentum.”  

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