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Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Green products might be better perceived by consumers than their chemical packed cousins, but do they perform as effectively? What do consumers think?

Being green has been touted as a home run by marketers. In reality, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, eco-friendliness is thought to be a highly sought-after product characteristic, and on the other, eco-friendly products are often associated with being more expensive and less effective.

Bottles with water, tree and a leaf on them

Research tells consumer reactions to green

A new study by three researchers at Yale University in the US, published in the October 2014 edition of Journal of Consumer Research, provides a cautionary tale about the virtues of green marketing.

The study is entitled When Going Green Backfires: How Firm Intentions Shape the Evaluation of Socially Beneficial Product Enhancements. Sounds complicated but it really has a simple point: if a consumer is told that a product has been improved, and that an incidental benefit of the upgrade is that the product is greener, then the product is likely to sell.

But here's the kicker – if the consumer is told that the intention of the improvement was to make the product greener, then the consumer is likely not to buy it. The reason, argue the researchers, is that consumers think an effort to make something greener diverts resources and effort away from product quality, thus making it less useful or effective.

Research findings

Appropriately, three of the four experiments conducted by the Yale researchers were conducted around improvements to cleaning products, specifically, dish soap and drain cleaner. It was a good choice because cleaning agents are used on a daily basis, need to be ruthlessly effective and have a large number of brands that span the whole continuum from very nasty to very environmentally friendly.

Consumers involved in the three experiments thought the cleaning products were going to be less effective if the intended product improvement was environmental friendliness.

The fourth of the experiments revolved around an improvement to the manufacturing process for ice-cream. Consistent with the results for cleaning agents, consumers were less likely to think the ice-cream was tastier if they perceived that the intention of the new production process was to make the product greener, as opposed to an incidental benefit.

Key takeaways

Product quality and price will usually come before green-ness. Product manufacturers shouldn’t dismiss green marketing because environmental friendliness will continue to be an important attribute to consider in the purchasing decisions of consumers.

Product improvement is the primary goal. The consumer should perceive no quality deterioration with an eco-friendly product. Manufacturers should promote the eco-friendliness as a happy side effect to their improved product.

Educate consumers how to use the product correctly. Green products must be marketed describing the most effective way to use them, which may require slight lifestyle change. For example, green drain cleaners are often designed to be used for regular maintenance – in contrast to the traditional products which are designed for the elimination of a one-off problem. If the consumer uses the green product inappropriately, disillusionment with it will likely follow.

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