Consumers don’t buy brands because they’re sustainable

Well, only a minority of consumers will do so.  Most consumers will prioritise other benefits, such as ease of use, perceived value for money, effectiveness, reliability, enjoyment, taste, etc.  Many brands have failed due to this fundamental error, often driven by the enthusiasm of the converted neglecting the basics of marketing: seeing everything from the point-of-view of your target customer.

There has been a tendency amongst some sustainability commentators to regard this as a new insight, but it is actually no more than a restatement of marketing fundamentals. Sometimes even well established brands have to recognise that the main proposition is no longer the most compelling reason to buy.  For instance, Lucozade was repositioned from an aid to illness recovery to an energy drink; IBM repositioned itself from being a manufacturer of mainframe computers to the provider of business and IT services; and the promotion of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo began to reflect the desire of mothers to use the product on their own hair.

Green & Black’s reflected this critical learning when they repositioned the brand from an organic platform to an indulgence proposition, resulting in a sales increase in the first year of 70%.  This ambitious move was a reflection of the fact that most premium chocolate buyers were not looking for an organic chocolate per se, but a rewarding experience.  The organic story nevertheless continues to play an important role in not only helping to explain the excellence of the chocolate, however, but in providing another level of reward: the knowledge that the product is also environmentally sound.

OMSCo (the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative) learned a similar lesson.  The early farmers who converted to organic dairy farming, and others in the organic industry and NGOs, admirably took the view that protection of the environment was the primary reason to buy organic.  What they neglected to understand was that the vast majority of potential consumers were not like them and could not be ‘converted’ by hitting them over the head with arguments that had little resonance.

Market research clearly showed that the most compelling reason for switching to organic milk was health – particularly for one’s children.  Careful exploration of the supply chain – i.e. what happened on an organic dairy farm compared to a conventional dairy farm, and growing scientific evidence of nutritional benefits (e.g. higher levels of omega3) provided a successful health platform for a huge expansion in the sales of organic milk. Household penetration rose from 8% in 2001 to 24% in 2006.  The environmental reasons continued to be used in support, however, providing additional reasons for purchasers to become more loyal.

For some brands, such as the Co-operative Bank and The Body Shop, an ethical/sustainable stance is central to the customer proposition.  For most, it will be a support.  Ben & Jerry’s sustainability stance is a great supporting and reinforcing story, but the taste and quality of the ice cream is the most important factor in consumer choice.

Philips learned the lesson the hard way when they introduced a compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb in 1994 in the USA and named it ‘Earthlight’.  The name pigeonholed it, the awkward shape didn’t fit most lamps and it cost $15.  Not surprisingly, the only people who bought it were deep green consumers.  It was successfully reintroduced with a conventional look in 2000, named ‘Marathon’ (now branded ‘EnergySaver’), and with the emphasis on savings and convenience.

A recent posting on Greenbiz.com on the Method brand confirms the importance of understanding the role of sustainability in the consumer proposition.  As Method’s Co-Founder Adam Lowry is quoted as saying: “We don’t run from the green, we just don’t make that the lead story”.  The brand’s website claims: “Give dirty the boot and evict toxic cleaning chemicals from your home.  These beauties smell like heaven and clean like heck whilst using naturally derived ingredients

In a similar way, the advertising for Michelin’s Energy Saver tyres states the fuel saving benefits of the product and Xerox emphasises how its more sustainable products will save money for its business customers.

The critical skill in achieving the right outcome is the ability to understand the relative motivational appeal of the available brand attributes to the target market.  This ability, and that of turning the insight into a powerful brand proposition, is probably the most important skill that marketers can bring to the party in developing more sustainable organizations.

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About David Whiting

I help organizations to create competitive advantage, build brands and develop new opportunities, in particular by aligning sustainability understanding with customer insights
This entry was posted in Developing Sustainability Marketing, Understanding Marketing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Consumers don’t buy brands because they’re sustainable

  1. Pingback: Does ‘mother know best’ when it comes to sustainability? | sustainabilityneedsmarketing

  2. EvaC says:

    Agree. Turning the title around to “Consumers don’t buy brands when they ‘become’ unsustainable ” – this you would think holds but does it? Look at the KitKat example and the deforestation carried out by a supplier to Nestle. Greenpeaces’s publicity of it never affected KitKat sales. You would think that when the socially concious consumer finds out about an incident they are not happy with that they would boycott purchasing it. However some products will always be bought – sales of Apple iPods despite the supply chain problems with Foxconn. There must be a tipping point where sales (economic sustainability) are impacted? As you stated it depends on whether environmental and/or social sustainability is core or a support to the brand.

  3. Thanks for the comment: I agree with what you say. I think we have to remember the constantly shifting mindset of different market segments. I believe that slowly a larger proportion of socially conscious consumers will take sustainability factors into greater consideration to the extent that for some non-purchase becomes the default decision sometimes. At the same time for other segments sustainable factors will at least be added to their purchasing criteria.

  4. Pingback: 8 sustainability musts for marketers | sustainabilityneedsmarketing

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