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Optimize “Green” Marketing Efforts to Benefit both the Consumer and the Environment

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A preference for sustainable and environmentally-friendly products spreads through the consumer population in a fashion similar to other innovations. Sixty years ago, in his book on the “Diffusion of Innovations”, Everett Rogers described how a new technology or behaviour comes over time to be shared through a social system. Reviewing prior adoption curves, Rogers posited that diffusion follows an approximate Gaussian or normal distribution, with a few innovators and early adopters at the beginning who are risk-takers and opinion leaders, and who need little convincing to lead. These influencers serve as role models to an early majority of adopters who are willing to try new things but are more risk-averse and don’t want to lead themselves and instead need to see others first take a step in the new direction.

On the other end of the distribution, a late majority group is more sceptical of change and is even more risk-averse. Or they may encounter bigger physical or mental barriers to the change. Yet as a growing majority accepts a change and society adapts to the actions of the vanguard, there is a tipping point at which it becomes easier for this late majority to follow along. And at the other extreme of the adoption curve there lies a minority of laggards (the polar opposites of the innovators and early adopters), who tend to be most conservative and tradition-bound and wary of change appeals, and who may then be either reluctantly dragged along by progress or eventually become extinct.

Rogers also posited that the diffusion of innovations occurs through stages whereby a person becomes aware of the factors underlying a need for innovation, engages in a decision process to trial the innovation, evaluates the early successes or failures with it, and then either continues with it or reverts to a trusted prior. Factors that influence the outcome of this progression include increased benefits over the old way of doing things, whether or not the innovation is consistent with one’s needs and values, how much mental or physical effort is involved in making a switch, and how easy it is to actually sample the alternative in terms of minimizing switching costs.

A very similar progression seems to characterize the evolving trend towards consumer preference for more sustainable and environmentally-friendly products and services. For example, one performed cluster analysis on a nationally representative survey sample of US consumers that gauged attitudes and intentions towards purchasing products that make sustainability claims. The researchers isolated four distinct groups.  At one extreme there was a small group defined as “green consumers”, those who scored highest on their degree of satisfaction with past purchases of sustainable products and highest on expressed intent to purchase such products in the future. This group can be viewed as analogous to Rogers’ innovators and early adopters. Similarly, a large proportion of respondents fell into a group positively disposed to the sustainability agenda: they were a bit less avid consumers of sustainable solutions than the early adopters and a bit more concerned about barriers to adoption, but roughly analogous to Rogers’ early majority.

And on the other side of the distribution, another large group had things in common with Rogers’ late majority – less concerned about issues related to sustainability than the early majority cohort, and yet also not devotedly sceptical or negative about the issues. They were just less engaged and more likely to make more sustainable purchase choices when those become the mainstream, easiest, and socially normative alternatives. Finally, at the negative extreme was a smaller group roughly analogous to Rogers’ laggards - those who were the most sceptical of green product claims and who scored lowest on both satisfaction and future purchase intent.

More recent global surveys have suggested a similar distribution of attitudes towards sustainability product claims. Typically, they show a growing group of people who recognizes that there is both a climate and general environmental crisis and who reports that they are concerned about it and regularly make their purchase decisions in ways that reflect that concern. There is a clear majority in such surveys that both espouse environmental concerns and at least periodically tries to purchase more sustainable products. Finally, the group that either lacks such concerns or rejects any need for making sustainable consumer choices is gradually shrinking.

Since there is a growing group of consumers who expresses concerns about the environmental crisis, there is a natural tendency for marketers to address communications directly to that group, and to ply that segment with the longer-term general environmental benefits of their product offerings. But that tactic is a mistake: it fails to acknowledge the very real personal concerns of the consumers who are positively predisposed to make sustainable choices on at least some occasions.

The sustainability marketing maven Jacquelyn Ottman and her colleagues introduced the term “green marketing myopia” to describe this state of affairs. This term refers to the situation of a brand marketer promoting the environmental benefits of a product while neglecting to also highlight the personal benefit of the product to the consumer. Shoppers buy things that provide them with a solution to some direct and near-term personal need (think taste, efficacy, status promotion, etc), and even very environmentally-conscious consumers look for product characteristics that provide them with important personal benefits. For the broadest swath of consumers, environmental benefits are at best of secondary interest and for a minority of consumers highlighting such benefits might actually be counterproductive.

There is a better alternative. A great recent example of a sustainability marketing effort that avoids “green marketing myopia” is that of P&G’s 2021 #TurnToCold campaign for its Tide brand. It encourages consumers to wash their clothes in cold water and expect cleaning efficacy equivalent to warm water washing. The campaign highlights direct personal benefits of doing so including significant financial savings from both reduced energy use and helping clothes to last longer. Of course, the reduced energy use has the side benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the longer-lasting clothes keep textile waste out of landfills. But in this marketing approach, the impersonal environmental benefits are complements to the direct product benefits enjoyed by consumers rather than trade-offs.

To speed the diffusion of “green” innovations through the population, marketers are well-advised to learn from such examples and develop campaigns that highlight product choices that represent a win-win for both the consumer and the environment.