Is there really no future for sustainable marketing?

Back in 2012, when I just started looking for an interesting topic for my PhD research, I stumbled across this article in which Joel Makower profoundly declares sustainable marketing to be dead. To be honest, I was quite perplex. Should I really commit to a 4-year long project, trying to figure out which marketing strategies will help companies to sell their sustainable products? The article certainly gives a few valid points on how and why sustainable marketing just is not working. Worse, it even concludes with “It’s time to declare defeat and move on.” Still, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that everything has been done to market these products, meaning that there is no hope for our planet and society. So, I’ve decided to take up the challenge and dedicate my PhD research to the marketing strategies for animal-friendly products.

Joel Makower did make a good point in stating that even when sustainable products are selling, it is not because of their environmental or societal impact. Indeed, these benefits are not what motivates most of consumers to buy sustainable products. Instead, they rather go for value for money (e.g., energy-saving, thus money-saving, electronics), healthiness (e.g., organically grown, thus pesticide-free, food) and convenience (e.g., locally grown, thus easily available, food). At the end, it all seems to come down to the question “What’s in it for me?”. And, who could blame them? Could you even imagine going for the most sustainable option with every single product choice? That would not only mean spending a whole lot more money (hello 280% price premium on organic chicken), but also reducing your choice (1 taste of organic ice cream or 20+ varieties of regular one?) and even having to make efforts to determine which product actually is the most sustainable one (fair-trade, organic or locally produced cookies?). Realistically, we cannot expect consumers to do this. What we can do is to use smart marketing strategies that emphasize the “what’s in it for me” – the benefits that make sustainability personally relevant to the buyer.

My research so far has shown that there are two major ways that seem to be working for animal-friendly products. First, consumers are sensitive to the good feeling that they get when they support animal welfare. Fortunately, this strategy should be quite easy to implement – let’s just put pictures of happy animals, feel-good phrases or even emoticons on the product packages. Second, and maybe more surprising, making consumers curious also drives them towards a more animal-friendly product choice. So, try adding a QR-code, a website or an interesting “Did you know?” fact and there’s a good chance that the curiosity will serve as a purchase motive. And while the first strategy already is widely used on the marketplace, there are hardly any animal-friendly products positioning themselves as entertaining or innovative, at least in the food category. This might be a good chance for the new products to differentiate from the rest.

The biggest advantage of these strategies is that they work particularly well for those consumers that want to do good, but not at any cost. Those who genuinely care about animals, planet and people that need help (don’t all most of us?) but who also demand to get a fine product for their money. Good news, right? Because especially these consumers are so important to get on board, to help them to make a more sustainable choices. So far, we have seen many efforts that target the “top segment” – consumers who care about sustainability that much that they are willing to give up value for money, convenience and variety of choice. By the way, I am not saying that these consumers do it for the planet/animals/others only. I believe, that even for them, buying sustainable products provides value for themselves, even if it is just by strengthening their (sustainable) identity. And I am definitely not saying that there should be no marketing efforts targeting these consumers. But I believe that there is more market potential in the first segment and that there are different strategies needed for them.

So, is sustainable marketing really over? I don’t think so. It’s just more difficult to get consumers on board than we have hoped. Let’s take up the challenge!

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Lenka Kopicarova

About Lenka Kopicarova

Lenka is PhD student at the Marketing and Consumer Behaviour group. Her project is called 'The impact of value-based positioning strategies for sustainable products on consumer preferences". Her research focuses on the marketing of sustainable and animal-friendly products, and the role of consumer emotions herein.

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