What we're thinking

Over the past decade, research studies have shown a growing appetite among consumers to buy products that are ‘greener’ or more ‘ethical’. This trend applies globally, not just in Western markets. It is potentially a positive sign for brands that are investing in sustainability.

But there’s a challenge. Consumers’ stated intentions aren’t always matched by behaviour at the till. Not everyone who claims they’ll buy green, actually does so. In fact, many do not. For many mainstream companies, sustainability has so far been a disappointment: worthwhile thinking and action to embed sustainability into products and services has not directly translated into increased sales.

New research by WPP companies is shedding light on this issue and its causes. It is pointing to a new way forward for marketing sustainability based on a deeper understanding of what motivates consumers and how to use this to drive market share for more sustainable products.

Research by WPP companies includes:

  • Despatch from a new business horizon Dispatch from a New Business Horizon by Grey, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Landor Associates and Millward Brown.

    A report examining seven principles for using sustainability for business advantage based on interviews with 11 global leaders. Contact Scott Osman or Katrina Kelly, kkelly@wppteampg.com.

  • Waste less, share more by Added Value.

    Research exploring how companies can benefit from the trend towards sharing products and services. Contact Leslie Pascaud, l.pascaud@added-value.fr.

  • Social good Trends in social good by JWT.

    Insights into the macro trends influencing companies and non-profits and how these two sectors can learn from another to achieve success while improving society. Available on JWTIntelligence.com.

  • The future Quotient The Future Quotient by Volans/JWT.

    This report celebrates companies that have demonstrated ‘future readiness’ and introduces the Future Quotient, a tool which companies can use to test and enhance their long-term strategies. Available on volans.com.

  • Global Corporate Reputation Index Global Corporate Reputation Index by Burson-Marsteller, Landor Associates, Penn Schoen Berland and Brand Asset Consulting.

    Identifies the 25 consumer companies with the best reputations, based on 40,000 consumer interviews on nearly 6,000 companies in six countries, and shows company performance and commitment to citizenship as the two driving forces. Available on www.burson-marsteller.com.

Mainstream Green Research by OgilvyEarth

When it comes to motivating the American mainstream, marketers, governments and NGOs have been approaching messaging and marketing around sustainability in the wrong light. In fact much of what we’ve been doing has actually been making green behaviour seem too difficult and costly from a practical, financial and social standpoint. Our recent research study, Mainstream Green, found that:

  • We’ve Been Missing the Middle: 82% of Americans have good green intentions but only 16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions, putting 66% in the Middle Green. Most dialogue and marketing to date has focused on Super Greens and Green Rejecters. There has been limited success in motivating the masses or the Middle Green.
  • Green Feels Niche: Half of study respondents think the environmentally-friendly product category is for ‘Crunchy Granola Hippies’ or ‘Rich Elitist Snobs’ rather than ‘Everyday Americans’. By trying to motivate the Green Middle with the tactics used for the Super Green niche, marketing has been sending the signal that green is “not for them”.
  • High Costs of Green: The No.1 barrier holding Americans back from more sustainable behaviours is money. The price premium on many eco-friendly products also says to the regular consumer, “this is for someone sophisticated, someone rich... not you”. The mainstream also said they fear attracting the negative judgement of their peers if they go out on a limb to purchase green products. Until green products and services feel normal, the Middle is unlikely to embrace them.
  • Green Guilt: Nearly half of Americans claim to feel guiltier “the more they know” about how to live a sustainable lifestyle. Flooded with guilt, they want to retreat to the comfort of ignorance. People don’t need to know about the state of polar bears in the Arctic to turn off the lights – paradoxically, it may be stopping them from doing so.
  • Green is the New Pink: 82% of our respondents said going green is “more feminine than masculine”. This feminisation holds men back from visible green behaviour like driving an electric car.
  • There’s a Big Opportunity for Mainstream Brands: 73% of Americans would rather purchase the environmentally-responsible product line from a mainstream brand that they’re familiar with than purchase a product from a company who specializes in being green and environmentally responsible.
  • Higher Stakes than Whiter Whites: While consumers are loath to sacrifice convenience for sustainability, our research showed they aren’t just being lazy; they may be weighing higher-stakes consequences. If I let my kid ride his bike, will he get hit by a car? If I use the less-efficient green cleaning product, will my baby get E. coli? When it comes to a choice between saving a little gas and your kid’s life, it’s easy to see which choice wins out.
  • The Complexity of Carbon Calculus: 82% of Americans from our survey don’t know how to calculate their carbon footprint. Maybe that’s why 80% of Americans would rather cure cancer than fix the environment; they need topics to be personal, positive, and plausible – which the environment, as of now, is not.

OgilvyEarth’s report outlines 12 steps to mainstreaming green that are grounded in the populist and popular thinking that is relevant to the mass consumer. It calls for a shift from an over-emphasis on changing attitudes to working on normalising green behaviours.

Read Making Green Mainstream:
Moving Sustainability from Niche
to Normal
at ogilvyearth.com Oglivy Earth

How to Sustain Sustainability Research by The Futures Company

Sustainability has power in the marketplace today if used appropriately. Brands which choose to position themselves only around sustainability are unlikely to gain widespread appeal, but sustainability factors within brand positioning can create differentiation, underpinning the reason to believe in a brand’s primary benefits, and act as a choice editor when all else is equal between two brands.

What’s more, brands can get better at unleashing the potential of sustainability today and even greater rewards are likely to materialise in the short- to medium-term future.

Our model to help brand owners consider the role of sustainability in their categories is based on how big an impact the category is perceived to have and how much sustainability issues matter in terms of product choice.

  • Feel good: Categories where sustainability impacts are perceived to be low or where issues are yet to surface. Sustainability initiatives are not expected but can create a more positive feeling around choice.
  • Better choices: Categories where impacts are perceived to be high but there is a lack of alternative choice. Products and brands that show they are responding to the issues can do well here.
  • Differentiated choices: Impacts are perceived to be low but sustainability initiatives can reinforce the core positioning of a brand.
  • Critical to choice: Categories where the impacts are perceived to be high and addressing sustainability issues is essential to choice or participation in the category.

Categories can and do shift between quadrants over time and leading brands can rewrite the category rules.

Take chocolate. Brands such as Green & Black’s are reshaping what consumers expect from the category, with facets such as fair trade and organic underlining the quality of the cocoa used. This enables the brand to command a premium price and category rules appear to be changing as a result: all major chocolate producers have now announced either Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance certification. For chocolate, sustainability is moving from Feel good to Critical to choice.

Over the next 10 years, macro forces of change are set to disrupt consumers’ lives from population growth and urbanization, to rising scarcity of oil, raw materials and water. This will create new needs, or radical new solutions for existing needs.

Too many brands seem comfortable resting in the context of today’s marketplace, unwilling to shake the foundations on which current success is built. This route is unlikely to lead to a sustainable future for the brand or the planet. Brands can, and arguably should, lead change – not out of altruistic motivation but to build competitive advantage. But doing so requires being honest about the issues and bringing them to the fore, and it requires finding genuinely better solutions for the planet while improving outcomes for consumers.

Brand owners need to ask themselves:

  1. 1. Do you understand the potential emerging issues in your category?
  2. 2. Do you have sustainability equities that you can use to start rewriting the category rules?
  3. 3. As the world changes, will your brands have the ability to adapt?

How to Sustain Sustainability is available at
thefuturescompany.com. The Futures Company

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