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13 October 2021

Is sustainable marketing overhyped?

Big news came out last week: new research done in the Belgian retail sector claims sustainability is not a decision driver when choosing a supermarket brand. Especially for younger consumers (18-29). Does this mean you should shift your sustainable marketing spending? We think you shouldn’t. Read on if you dare. 😉

Is sustainable marketing overhyped?

1. Why is it so hard to sell sustainability?

Recent research by The House of Marketing and Beyond Reason found that sustainability is not one of the main subconscious drivers when choosing which supermarket to shop at in Belgium anno 2021. This finding seemed especially true for youngsters (18-29). This might sound counterintuitive to the perception that sustainability is high on the agenda of younger shoppers. There is however a basic psychological principle at the heart of these research findings.

It’s the lack of instant gratification for products that have sustainability as their main (or only) marketing claim. When we consider buying a product, we skew towards the products that promise us instant rewards. If one soap product’s main claim is that you will smell lovely after using it and the other claims you will save a bottle of plastic when buying it, which one would you choose?

What makes selling sustainability even more difficult is the “think-do” gap. Today most marketers know that there’s a difference between what people say and what they eventually do. When it comes to sustainability, this gap is even bigger due to the subject being a socially desirable one to associate with. Most consumers will say they want to buy sustainable products but will not follow up with a real purchase. Therefore, a lot of brands get positive feedback from clients when they ask if they would buy their sustainable product, but when push comes to shove purchases don’t follow.

Lastly, we should not confuse societally relevant or mediatized topics with people’s purchase motives. Although the climate crisis might be a big worry for your consumers, this will certainly not always result in a purchase of a more sustainable product. Sustainability might just not be on the mind of your consumers when making a purchase. At that very moment other goals are likely to be more relevant in their final purchase decision. However, this does not mean that sustainability and marketing make an impossible duo.

2. Increase your chances of influencing (sustainable) purchase behavior

It’s a no-brainer to work on sustainability as a brand. Because it is important for your survival, but scientific research also found that companies that use sustainable practices outperform their competitors. So what about sustainable marketing? Should you actively use sustainability in your marketing?

Even if it is hard to sell (or market) sustainability, when used in the right way, it seems to give a competitive advantage. That’s why we think you should give sustainable marketing another go. Here are 4 tips to keep in mind when considering sustainable marketing for your brand or product.

 

1. Build lasting brand connections by leveraging the instant gratification mechanism

Now that we know that we have to battle instant gratification desires in our customers, why not use this to our advantage? Marketers could place cues on products that are inherently sustainable, that help fulfil both the short-term consumer purchase drivers and their longer-term aspirational desires. Go for it and shout that your plant-based sugarless treat is just as good as the sugar-packed, cow milk-filled competitor next to it. You don’t have to necessarily lead with vegan and sugar-free messaging.

If you know your target audience well (and by “well” we mean having a continuous data feedback loop to identify implicit drivers and real-world behaviors), you can experiment with different messages to different audiences. All while feeding into their personalized needs throughout their purchase funnel (from the first time they hear about you, to when they are in the store considering where to spend their coins). Just make sure you are consistent across all customer touchpoints, or you risk negatively influencing customers’ purchase intent towards your brand or product.

 

2. When customers feel good about their purchase, they come back for more

Marketing done right can be a thing of beauty. We have the power to not only influence consumers in what they want to buy at any point in time, but also to shape their buying behavior over the course of decades and across generations.

Research done in 2018 found that sustainability has a positive effect on customer loyalty. The first purchases of your customers might not be driven by the sustainability aspects of a product. But once their primary needs are satisfied, sustainability can stimulate repurchasing and therefore have a positive impact on your revenue.

Let’s revisit the soap example. Imagine your customer has bought a bar of soap that has an additional benefit of plastic-less packaging compared to a similar bottled product. Your customer’s dominant first purchase drivers might be that the soap feels soft, smells good... and so on. Only after these primary needs are met, will the secondary drivers, in this case the plastic free packaging claim, gain importance. As a result, the sustainable marketing of the product will make your customer feel good about their purchase long term. In this example your customer is the hero contributing to a better world. If you want your sustainable marketing to create loyal customers, you should help your customers feel like they are doing a good job by choosing more sustainable products or services.

 

3. Leverage customers and employees to build ambassadorship

Even though a first purchase might not be done with sustainability in mind, it could become a dominant purchase driver down the road. With every brand interaction you have with a customer, you have the power to help shape their perception of your brand/product and in turn influence their own explicit or even implicit motives for wanting to purchase from you.

Marketing should be about more than driving your customer towards a single purchase. Marketing, if done right, can help to increase repeat purchases and instill lasting brand attachment. There’s a reason why we see ambassador marketing work better for sustainable brands than non-sustainable ones. Customers follow people and brands they align with. Be transparent and choose your ambassadors wisely. Start with your employees and build from there.

 

4. Know how your audience evolves

As sustainable topics are becoming more and more mainstream, it’s likely we’ll notice a shift in consumers’ purchase drivers soon. Customers that consciously identify with having sustainable drivers today likely already forego the pleasures of instant gratification that some non-sustainable alternatives might offer. Some people might already feel that sustainable products or brands are delivering an instant feel-good reward. For these customers, it is important that you create a sustainable offering and highlight it with labels on the packaging and your communication strategy.

We would advise to closely monitor the evolution of sustainability as a purchase driver for your brand, products, and services. Doing so before and after implementing significant sustainable marketing efforts will enable you to quickly adapt and experiment with the best available data to achieve the best results in the end. Additionally, implicit research like the one done in Belgium may help you discover hidden dimensions of sustainability that matter to your customers.

 

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References:

The House of Marketing, Researchgate, Wiley Online Library and SpringerLink.

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