The Green Marketer’s Dilemma

Many “green” products help the consumer as much as they do the environment. Which benefit marketers should draw attention to, it turns out, depends entirely on consumer frame of mind.

July 25, 2014

Ben & Jerry’s in Vermont, Stonyfield Farm in New Hampshire, Patagonia in California—until recently, environmentally sustainable, or “green,” business comprised only a handful of countercultural companies. But these types of products today are ubiquitous. Ben & Jerry’s is one of many food companies focused on wholesome and high-quality ingredients. Stonyfield faces growing competition from other organic dairies. Most clothing brands feature a line with organic cotton. Throughout every sector, the percentage of recycled content is prominently stamped on commercial packaging. Such trends seem to imply widespread consumer demand for environmentally friendly goods.

And yet evidence suggests that many green products are unsuccessful in the marketplace. This is often attributed to a disconnection between consumers’ values and their actual purchase behavior, and it presents an interesting conundrum for marketers: if consumers express an abstract desire to help the environment, but their behavior hews to more immediate and concrete needs, is there a way to reconcile these competing ideologies?

With Kelly Goldsmith of Northwestern University, George Newman and Ravi Dhar from Yale studied how different marketing cues for green products affect product understanding and purchase prospects. Their experiments drew on an existing body of marketing research that shows consumers with a concrete, rather than abstract, mentality tend to focus on immediate rewards. By extension, if consumers were thinking in concrete terms, the authors wondered, would the direct personal benefits of a green product—save on utility bills!—make for persuasive advertising? Conversely, if consumers were thinking in the abstract, would communicating the more distant, higher-level environmental benefits—uses less energy!—be more effective?

[Marketers must] consider the mental representation of their customer when developing their product messaging.

Their experiments found evidence in direct support of this theory. Participants first completed a simple task to put them in either a concrete frame of mind—write about your life tomorrow—or an abstract frame of mind—write about your life one year from tomorrow. After this kind of priming question, participants viewed an advertisement for a green product that promoted either personal benefits or environmental benefits. As predicted, consumers who were thinking concretely preferred advertisements that highlighted personal benefits; the opposite was true for consumers who were thinking abstractly.

“To date academics and practitioners alike have struggled to understand consumers’ reaction to green products in the marketplace,” the authors write. Broad, vocal support from consumers for environmentally beneficial products has not been reflected in sales figures. One solution to this purchasing gap may require marketers “to consider the mental representation of their customer when developing their product messaging.” Failing to consider this context could hurt sales.

For instance, television commercials are used to promote vaguely imaginable future purchases; they advertise products in the abstract. This suggests that promoting green products over TV may benefit from an emphasis on the environmental value of such goods, as opposed to their associated personal benefits. Meanwhile in-store communications, like aisle displays and packaging, are visible at the point-of-purchase, a much more concrete moment in time. On this front, marketers may be better off highlighting the personal benefits associated with green products—a natural detergent that’s gentle on clothes, organic produce that promotes family health.

In short, marketers must realize that weighing whether it is better to emphasize the environmental or the personal benefits associated with a green product is the wrong way to approach the question. Both messages are needed. What matters is deploying each one at the appropriate time. If all is fair in love and war, then its quieter counterpart must be acknowledged: all is context in humor and marketing.