Green Marketers: Don’t Take That Guilt Trip

Make consumers feel confident about your product’s performance before slipping in the sustainability sell

The essentials

Green marketers are bedevilled by the chasm between what consumers say about sustainable products and what they actually purchase. How do marketers move beyond niche markets to win broader acceptance of sustainable products? Part of the answer, says Jacob Brower, assistant professor of marketing at Queen’s School of Business, is giving consumers confidence in the product rather than appealing to their guilt.   

Working with Michael Luchs (Mason School of Business, College of William and Mary) and Ravindra Chitturi (Lehigh University), Brower has studied the emotional factors that drive people to choose a sustainable product over a more functional alternative. In this interview with QSB Insight, he discusses the implications.

Why the road to failed green products is paved with good intentions

If you survey people, 99 percent say they would buy sustainable products if given the opportunity. And 85 percent of people report buying sustainable products most of the time. But when you look at the actual outcomes associated with these sustainable products, only 15 to 20 percent of people are actually buying sustainable products. There’s this huge gap between what people report what they do and what they’re actually doing. In sustainable products, that can be up to a five-to-one ratio. 

We were curious, Why does this gap exist? Prior research has shown that if something is tasty, people can’t also perceive it as healthy. So Michael (Luchs) went into his dissertation looking at the sustainability angle. Maybe there’s an idea in people’s minds that, “When I get something that is sustainable, I have to give up something.” Interestingly, he found that wasn’t always true. Sometimes people perceived this trade off, and sometimes they didn’t.   

He figured out that when products were meant to be tough or durable, such as cleaning products or tires, there was this trade-off to buying a more sustainable product: I have to give up functionality. On the other hand, if the product was meant to go in or on your body, such as food, beauty, or health products, sustainability was actually an asset: there wasn’t any perceived trade-off.  

In many product categories, people don’t spend a lot of time really thinking about the products they buy. They have an emotional reaction to them and then choose the one that results in an overall more positive feeling. Our goal was to figure out the emotional factors that are driving people to choose a sustainable product over a more functional product. 

The trade-off between performance and sustainability

In our first study, with student participants, we found that people do perceive a tradeoff between performance and sustainability, and that the tradeoff seems to be smaller for people who care more about the environment. They don’t feel they’re giving up as much. 

But when we looked at the emotions behind it, we found that for people who really care about the environment, the primary motivating emotion was guilt. When they leaned towards possibly choosing the less sustainable option, they felt a lot of guilt. To try and offset the anticipated guilt of buying a less sustainable product, they bought the more sustainable product. 

On the other hand, for people who didn’t care as much about the environment or sustainability, confidence moderated the relationship: If I feel confident the item is going to work, that’s going to lead me to choose it. When we had them lean towards the more sustainable option, with slightly lower performance, they didn’t feel as confident that it was going to meet their needs. Therefore, they didn’t choose the sustainable option. 

In the second study, with actual consumers, we got exactly the same result. It was guilt that drove the people who cared about the environment to buy the more sustainable product, and confidence in the product that drove those who didn’t care about the environment as much to buy the more performance-oriented product. 

“Considering the amount of influence of what’s on the package, it’s an under-respected element of marketing”

So we wondered: if we’re selling a sustainable product, how can we convince the mass market that our product is just as good? We tried different things, like money-back guarantees, warranties, and consumer reports ratings. We didn’t find anything that seemed to offset this difference. So we decided to try aesthetic design. There was some pre-existing evidence that if people see that a lot of thought went into a product’s design, they tend to also assume there was a lot of thought that went into the performance element of the product as well. In our study, using cell phones, we showed that it did make a difference for everyone, especially for those who were less oriented toward the environmental aspects of products. Having good design increases their confidence that the product is going to work. We even gave them information that the performance [of the sustainable product] was nearly as good but it wasn’t until we added the aesthetic element that they believed this sustainable product was going to do what it needed to do.

A more proactive marketing perspective would say, What is it that we can do in terms of product design to drive choice towards the sustainable product? 

Much of the advertising for sustainable products says, “Make a better world for your children” or “Don’t ruin the planet for your kids”. It’s a guilt appeal, which works for the niche of people who care. But for the mass market that’s consuming 80 percent of the products, that appeal is not doing anything. It’s falling on deaf ears.

How to balance performance and sustainability in packaged goods

The genesis of this project was a Clorox ad that I had seen that showed a shower with grimy tiles on both sides with a line down the middle. They had two masked bottles, Brand A and Brand B, and they sprayed both on, showed a time lapse with people wiping it off with a sponge. Both products looked like they cleaned about the same. The ad said, This product is Clorox and this is other product is Clorox Green Works. The first message was, This product works. Then they followed that up with, By the way it’s also sustainable. Our results suggest that this kind of approach may be more effective than the traditional guilt appeals used in the sustainable product space.

The second big takeaway is the importance of integrating thoughtful aesthetic design into the sustainable product development process.  Method was one of the first to recognize that the aesthetic of the product matters as much as the sustainability of the product. Method makes home cleaning products that are environmentally friendly but they always focus on their products being convenient and really attractive. People see the nice looking package on the shelf and pick it up so the design acts like advertising at the point of sale and drives consumers to at least notice and consider the product. They think “Maybe it’ll look nice as part of the décor in my house and it’s sitting here with the cleaning products.” Then they read it and they find out it is very sustainable. 

Method has positioned its products on the idea that they are sustainable and it focuses on the aesthetics. There is at least some indication that this works, as people believe Method’s products to be very effective. Our results suggest that this could be an effective approach to marketing sustainable products in other product categories as well. 

Interview by Alan Morantz

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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