Marketers: Reassure Consumers that Sustainable Products are Part of a Larger Solution

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Sustainable Brands recently referenced a study from Ohio State University that shows thatnot only do many consumers not want to put much effort toward finding out whether our purchases were produced ethically (which is not exactly news), they have a way of looking down on those who do.”

I can relate: My in-laws feel that way about me! They see organic food, for example, as expensive nonsense for fools/snobs/hippies who believe in that “green stuff.”

The co-author of the study said the results suggest that “consumers want to do the right thing — they just need help to do it.” I think they also need reassurance.

Brands need to reassure consumers that sustainable products are of good value, mainstream, part of a larger solution and match their values.

Brands need to reassure consumers that sustainable products are of good value, mainstream, part of a larger solution and match their values. Many have already worked hard to address the cost and value issues but still need to do more to show consumers that ethically sourced and produced products are right for people like them.

Providing good value

Probably the most common myth about “green” products is that they are more expensive and don’t work as well; many are indeed not competitively priced (there is a reason why Whole Foods has been nicknamed Whole Paycheck’) or their immediate benefits are uncertain (why buy an electric car now that oil prices are low?).

In response to consumers’ doubts and cynicism, many established brands are now marketing their products’ environmental benefits as a secondary attribute. They have also tried to prove to consumers that any extra cost is justified because of long-term savings or other benefits. Long-term and/or intangible return on your green investment, however, can be hard to measure and may feel too abstract: Is eating organic food really going to improve my health? Is switching to LED bulbs going to save me money (the answers by the way are Yes, probably and yes, absolutely)?

I’m sure my in-laws are not against saving money on their energy bills, but until there is a hefty carbon tax on energy consumption, the prize is not enough to warrant any upfront costs or extra effort (such as switching off the TV when nobody is watching). So brands need to continue to show that better products are worth the extra financial cost, and also address non-financial costs such as inconvenience and confusion over ecolabels.

In addition, brands need to demonstrate that responsible products (and actions) are the norm, are part of a larger solution and are in line with the consumers’ values.

That’s the socially accepted behavior

This new normal is often achieved through legislation (e.g. ban of incandescent lightbulbs in Europe, extra fee for plastic bags in France and Scotland, mandatory fuel economy standards on U.S. cars) or technological improvements (e.g. cold water detergent). But the industry can also lead the charge and convince customers to change their behaviors. For example, reusing towels in hotel rooms is now the norm (more than 75 percent of U.S. hotels have linen and towel reuse programs, according to a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association). For all the talk about individual freedom and customization in today’s society, people just generally want to follow the pack. That’s why research shows that hotel guests are more likely to reuse their towels if they know that everyone else is doing it.

Part of a larger solution

Consumers also need to be reassured that their efforts or purchases are part of a larger solution. They don’t want to feel like they’re fighting a losing battle or the only ones making sacrifices; some people in the U.S. and Europe argue (incorrectly) that there is no point in tackling climate change because China is not.

Reusing towels saves the hotel money but customers feel better about sacrificing fresh towels if they know that it is part of a wider effort by the hotel to protect the local environment rather than a selfish attempt to reduce laundry costs.

Going back to the hotel towel example, we all know that reusing towels saves the hotel money but customers feel better about sacrificing fresh towels if they know that it is part of a wider effort by the hotel to protect the local environment rather than a selfish attempt to reduce laundry costs.

Brands should therefore make sure their sustainability efforts are in keeping with their overall corporate identity: Conscious consumers will be loath to make the effort to purchase products touted as more sustainable by companies that are not following suit on a larger scale.

Shared values

Finally, brands need to show that product attributes and images match the consumers’ values. Tea Party Republicans, for example, are not known for their concerns for the environment, but the ideas of energy independence and self-reliance do resonate with them. This is how one Tea Party leader is pushing for more renewable energy in Florida.

In the business world, car manufacturers are promoting their vehicles not on their eco-friendliness but on the attributes that match their consumers’ needs and wants. BMW, for example, is now promoting its i3 electric car as thrilling and aspirational. When shopping for a new car, aesthetics, cost and the fun of driving are all attributes that consumers can get excited about and talk to their friends about without being called a ‘tree-hugger’!

I need brands to help convince my in-laws that green products are the right ones for them, because they are the right ones for everyone: for those who make them, those who buy them and society at large.

This article as originally published on the Sustainable Brands website
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Nick Desolino is a UK based sustainability consultant at KPMG. Nick manages the delivery of complex, international sustainability assurance and advisory engagements for a variety of clients. He also works tirelessly to help ensure that KPMG “walks the talk” by adopting waste reduction and water and energy conservation initiatives.