Q&A: What determines whether consumers buy eco-friendly products? It may be less about values and more about the way they think.
Consumers today are surrounded by eco-friendly product options, from electric cars to reusable bags to insulation made from recycled blue jeans. But even when such products have positive benefits, eco-friendly options can prove to be a tough sell. This is because consumers often have negative perceptions about sustainable products — they are seen as being more expensive, less effective, or less attractive.
According to a new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business, however, those reasons could run even deeper — and may even depend on how consumers think.
We caught up with UBC Sauder Marketing and Behavioural Science professor Katherine White, who co-authored the study, to find out more.
What inspired this study?
My co-authors and I had an intuition that people can have a hard time grasping the concept of sustainability. Sometimes the actions they need to take are unclear, and sometimes the potential benefits of being sustainable are uncertain — they will happen in the future, they benefit other people, so these benefits end up feeling vague and abstract to consumers. We thought that people might just “check out” because sustainability didn’t connect with them in the here and now. That's where it started.
How did you go about it?
We did a series of studies involving different products — a granola bar, an eco-friendly tire, a cleaning product — and for each one, we varied the kind of information provided. So we either highlighted the sustainable features of each product, or we highlighted more “traditional” things like taste or performance. What we found was that the people who are more abstract (or “big picture”) thinkers prefer the more sustainably positioned products. Those who think more concretely (who want to know the details) want to know what’s in it for them right now, so the idea of sustainability doesn't resonate as well.
Why does the idea of sustainability resonate so much more with the abstract thinkers?
We think it's because sustainability is a more abstract concept, and consumers who construe information more abstractly are more likely to focus on the future, which makes the long-term benefits of purchasing eco-friendly products more salient in the present.
What does this mean for businesses?
In general, most consumers are more concrete thinkers when they are making purchase decisions. They are thinking of what specific products they need to buy in the here-and-now to meet their immediate concerns. Thus, one solution is to change the way the consumer is thinking, to get them to think more abstractly in a way that helps them to consider the future.
Or, if you think your consumers are in more of a concrete mindset, you could communicate more clearly about the specific properties of the sustainable product itself, which makes the details more concrete and leads them to be more likely to choose that product. But the main thing is for marketers to consider the characteristics of the segment of consumers they're targeting, because if they understand their state of mind, perhaps they can vary how they are positioning the product.
Have you seen examples of this in the marketplace?
We didn't test this specifically, but one example was called the Tide Clean Pledge Challenge. Tide was challenging consumers to do their laundry using cold water and do quicker washes to save energy. In some of their communications they made specific calculations for the consumer like: “Switching to cold water for one year can save enough energy to charge your smartphone for a lifetime.” And you think, "Wow, that's really specific. I understand that. I get the implications." When the brand explains what the product does and the outcomes of using the product in this way, this is when consumers are really able to connect with the notion of sustainability.
Where do some marketers go wrong?
Often the marketer wants to communicate everything, and they end up putting out mixed messages. So there might be a very future-focused appeal as well as specifics, and that muddies the water.
My suggestion would be if you have distinct messages, perhaps promote them in different places, or position them to distinct segments of consumers. So if you're talking about the concrete benefits, focus more on the specifics and on the here and now; if you're focusing on the future, talk more about the bigger implications and the broader things that could happen. Sometimes marketers want to communicate everything all in one message; that doesn't always work, and can even backfire.
It seems like everybody should want to buy eco-friendly products. What are some other reasons they don’t?
One of big ones is that it's not always clear what the benefits are, and people are uncertain about them. Is it really going to make a difference if I do this? How much of a difference is it going to make? There’s also the notion that choosing a sustainable option often means that you're taking some kind of cost to the self — so people might think sustainable options cost more, or they’re less effective, or when it comes to clothing or automobiles, they're less attractive — and it's for some future good that's really vague, and for other people. But some brands have done a good job of overcoming those negative perceptions.
What’s a brand that has really succeeded on that count?
They have had their issues, but I think Tesla has done a really nice job. Traditionally there was the perception that electric cars aren’t as effective, they don’t perform well, they’re ugly, and they’re expensive. So Tesla comes along and introduces a vehicle that performs really well, it’s aesthetically pleasing; and now they're offering one of the models at a lower price point, so they're making it more accessible to consumers. And they've done a really nice job of linking the product line to things like performance and innovation, so consumers can say, “That's awesome. I can have this great performing car, I can feel proud about it environmental benefits, and it has these other positive consequences as well.”
Katherine White holds the Professorship in Consumer Insights, Prosocial Consumption, and Sustainability and is a Professor in the Marketing and Behavioural Science Division at the UBC Sauder School of Business. She is also the Academic Director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics. She co-authored Focusing on the forest or the trees: How abstract versus concrete construal level predicts responses to eco-friendly products along with Rebecca Walker Reczek from Ohio State University and Remi Trudel from Boston University. The paper was recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.