Go green or not

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Research

Do brands do better by going green?

Many brands are positioning themselves as environmentally-conscious leaders. But how much does a green brand strategy drive sales and influence brand attitudes?

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I am often asked by clients how much consumers really care about eco-friendly brands? Does going green create a real brand halo?

Environmental concerns are highly prevalent in media today, particularly in the context of climate change. In recent weeks, coverage of these concerns has dramatically increased as the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement. Many big brands responded immediately to the President’s action, stating their intent to follow-through with standards established by the Paris accord and to aggressively reduce their environmental footprint. So, one would guess that making such public stands has a brand benefit.

But consumer behavior is quirky. In consumer research, we are always mindful of errors in data gathering. While most consumers are honest and intend to tell you the truth about their attitudes and behaviors, they often mislead you.

Sometimes, they mislead you because they tell you what they think you want to hear. They guess at what you’re studying and answer in ways they perceive to be helpful (i.e., sharing their opinion on what it would take to switch from their preferred brand to a more sustainable brand when, in fact, something else–often subconscious–drives their purchase behavior).

Sometimes, their actual behavior is not politically correct or the popular point of view, so they answer in a way that feels more socially acceptable (i.e., agreeing with statements that say they make a point to purchase environmentally-friendly products when, in fact, they don’t).

So, how do you know whether an eco-friendly strategy is right for your brand when you can’t necessarily trust what your target market says to you in survey research?

First, as I always say, brand should follow business. Before considering whether or not eco-friendly is good for your brand, consider what going green means for your fundamental business. Many brands make the switch to green because it delivers cost-savings, tax benefits, and/or benefits to the local community. These benefits may also translate to a brand benefit, but they should be evaluated on their business merits.

Second, can you live up to a green brand claim? The problem with many eco-friendly brand programs is that they are more puff than substance. If the brand is promoting green options while continuing to live a brownish life, consumers are apt to dismiss the claim altogether.

I think of this circumstance often when I travel. It has become common practice for hotels to ask if I’d like to “make a green choice” during my stay, usually meaning that I don’t want them to change the sheets or towels. It’s hardest for me to opt in when I observe most of these hotels wasting resources left and right—over-cranked AC, lights on everywhere, unnecessary use of linens and harmful disposables. What difference does my choice make when they’re not taking environmental consciousness seriously in all of their operating activities?

A recent study in the Journal of Marketing Research corroborated this insight. In controlled experiments with real hotel guests, researchers found that guests were much more likely to rate the hotel’s brand favorably, and to change their own behavior during their stay, when they observed the hotel consistently operating in an environmentally conscious way.

The cues that guests observed were actually very subtle, but significant. In one condition, guests were given a bamboo toothbrush wrapped in recycled material. In another, the guest was given a plastic toothbrush wrapped in a plastic sleeve. This subtle touch alone had a statistically significant impact on response variables in the study.

But there’s a third factor that brands should consider when debating green strategies: what does the customer actually value? In the context of your brand’s product or service, how much does a green approach offset or enhance the utility of the brand?

The best example of this relates to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Marketing. In an experiment that was staged during an outbreak of H1N1 flu, researchers placed two bottles of hand sanitizer near the entrance to a university cafeteria. One bottle was an eco-friendly sanitizer, the other was positioned as “industrial strength.” Researchers monitored which bottle students used most, but they did so in two separate conditions. In one condition, an attendant stood close to the table with the sanitizers. In the other, the attendant was out of sight.

Again, remember that the experiment happened during a flu epidemic, and signs near the table reminded students of the importance of sanitizing. That explains the amusing results. When an attendant was near the table, students were more likely to make the green choice. When the attendant was out of sight, they chose the industrial strength option more often. The moral: when strength matters, green might not.

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