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The Three Rs Pushing Consumers’ Eco-Friendly Carts

By Kathryn Ambroze

The Three Rs Pushing Consumers’ Eco-Friendly Carts

From plant-based burgers to paper straws, environmental initiatives are expanding to meet the demands of the conscious consumer. Indirect suggestions known as behavioral nudges emphasize positive characteristics, such as eco-friendliness, to impact the decision-making process. Yet, do consumers prioritize environmental incentives enough to break pre-existing routines? How can marketers encourage consumers to value eco-efficient products? Exploring the gap between what consumers say and do may provide some context into the intentionality behind the shopping experience and reveal if marketers are polluting or promoting a greener lifestyle.

Behavioral economics utilizes theories from psychology and economics to focus on how consumers act when confronted with decisions under certain circumstances. In recognizing human idiosyncrasies, patterns in consumer behavior emerge as systematic, thus making it easier to understand what influences them. By applying nudging tactics, certain components of a product be can highlighted. Using the lens of positive environmental benefits to solidify a purchase, the value of nudging is explored.

Reduce (Options)

Simple labeling nudges are used on packaging to streamline a decision. Association influence is seen in the “halo effect” where consumers assume additional unrelated characteristics about a product based on its overall impression. As a form of confirmation bias, the consumer interprets marketing components to affect perceptions and guide inferences about unknown information (Amos, Allred & Zhang, 2017). Assumptions are a fast way to holistically evaluate an item, even if the perceived interpretations are wrong. Furthermore, environmental packaging or labels (such as organic, fair trade and natural) promote superior associations. For example, biodegradable material is associated as a nontoxic, sustainable option, yet it can increase landfill methane gas production (Amos et al., 2017). Consumer perception drives incentive, regardless of a product’s reality.

Human perception adapts quickly to comprehend the incredible amount of information it is interpreting at any given time. Mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, are employed to conserve energy. While heuristics allow consumers to respond quickly and streamline efficiency, it also results in biased decisions. Asking “Do I like brown eggs?” versus “Does eating cage-free eggs make me feel more ethically sound?” is a form of attribute substitution where consumers relate to different, simpler questions. Acknowledging mental strategies of categorization, marketers can intervene and entice consumers through subtle suggestion.

Reuse (Positive Connotations)

Shopping is a habitual experience. Habit loops consisting of cues, routines and rewards are reinforced every time the action is repeated. By perpetuating a cycle that meets an expectation, the strength of a connection increases. Psychological tools, such as the implicit timed reaction test, analyze the strength of associations towards a product or stimulus. Companies may track the visceral perception of a brand, concept or product over time to evaluate strategic opportunities. Consumers are less likely to deviate from the norm to avoid switching costs but will evolve with the product if the perception of innovations is consumer-focused.

Green products are a specialty since alleged efforts are implemented to meet eco-efficient desires. Companies must pay to review the negative impact of energy and raw material consumption. While the expense of meeting label requirements ensures quality, some marketers take advantage of the eco-friendly associations by deceiving consumers into believing a product has environmental benefits through meaningless claims. The tactic known as “greenwashing” developed from marketers intentionally pushing suggestive eco-friendly labels as a means of tricking the consumer to attribute sustainable characteristics to a brand or product (Amos et al., 2017). Regardless of the label authenticity, green products have a high purchasing power by linking them to a subscribed concept of sustainability (Lopes & Veiga, 2019). Furthermore, personal benefits, such as saving money long-term as seen with solar panels, drive consumer engagement with prosocial action (Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis, & Theotokis, 2020). Social norms within messaging impact consumers behavior through context. Van Bavel et al. (2020) suggests phrases such as “the overwhelming majority of people in your community…” to persuade public response. Social proof can compel consumers to follow the majority, whether to work from home, shop online or use leftover fabric for face masks.

Consumers justify high costs through the emotional association attached to the sustainability characteristics emphasized in the product’s presentation through the orientation of communication via packaging, ads and usage. However, the justification of a price may not equate to buying behaviors. Consumer attitudes may desire to live a greener lifestyle while still choosing the cheaper, conventional alternative. Green products compared to the conventional alternatives are associated with poorer performance. Usrey, Palihawadana, Saridakis and Theotokis (2020) suggest understated green credentials, while features such as performance are highlighted simultaneously, receive better evaluations and increase purchase intent. Determining what influences deter or attract consumers to a purchase allow the marketers to cater the product information to consistently better fit the demands of the consumer.

Recycle (Ways to Share Information)

Converting information about a product into digestible, memorable marketing is crucial to connect with consumers. Nudging accentuates features that portray certain options as superior to others. The decoy effect is one method that involves marketers intentionally displaying similar, less attractive product to increase satisfaction for a midground option. Slapø and Karevold (2019) used traffic-light symbols to explain the climate impact of each dish, which improved consumer ecofriendliness. Consumers chose the yellow option, suggesting the middle choice appears more attractive when compared to two extremes. When using three options, the decoy phenomenon is reinforced by the compromise effect, where restructuring the choice motivates consumers to commit to the perceived less risky selection, typically a middle option. The decoy effect is frequently applied to pricing structure and a certain characteristic, such as design or function. If a consumer is choosing among a generic, a hypoallergenic and a patterned band-aid, the most expensive option (with a cool design) steers the consumer to the second most expensive choice, the hypoallergenic one. Consumers are satisfied with the purchase since the asymmetry of the third patterned band aid reframed the decision, making the hypoallergenic band-aid more appealing.

Framing is another technique which modifies information to adjust the product depiction. This technique changes consumer interpretation by highlighting a statement either positively (gained framing) or negatively (loss framing) (Tu, Kao, & Tu, 2013). For example, “Using LED lights reduces carbon emissions” provides a benefit or a gain, while “Unlike LED lights, noxious chemicals are found in florescent lights” stresses the negative of florescent lights. Choosing how to best frame energy conservation can motivate action. Perception of the value changes when differences between green and non-green products are noted since social influence, personal responsibility and environmental attitude impact consumers when evaluating items (Tu et al., 2013). Explaining how a behavior (such as buying LED) equates to certain outcomes is a persuasive messaging tactic since it mitigates risk. The decoy effect and framing nudge at elements of messaging to change perception, thus subtly effecting the consumer evaluation.

Consumer motives are influenced by knowledge and appeal. Marketing communications informs via messaging, packaging and actual product experience to strengthen consumer impressions. Adopting the eco-friendly narrative within products helps promote the acceptance of a brand and purchasing intent of a consumer with matching values. When consumers feel moral responsibility for product sustainability, it is easier to subscribe to the promotional strategies that encourage safe environmental behaviors. Through simple nudges, consumers are encouraged to expand beyond their habitual tendencies and explore new options of perceived benefits to live more environmentally conscious. As alternative means of production shift towards sustainability, it is the consumers’ buying patterns that ultimately motivate the companies to uphold greener standards. Shifting the standard of sustainability to an expectation rather than a luxury, the norm and nudges are reinforced with each point of purchase.

About the author: Kathryn Ambroze is the Manager of Behavioral and Marketing Science for the Research and Innovation team at HCD. Her role with HCD involves continuously improving applied neuroscience designs, testing environments, and tactical strategy work to streamline the research process. HCD is a marketing and consumer sciences company that provides expert recommendations by employing traditional and applied consumer neuroscience to optimize the design of products, experiences and communications.

This article was initially published in Insights Magazine. Become the smartest in the room and get immediate access to the largest neuromarketing article archive in the world!