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Marketers, Neuroscientists Demystify the Conscious Consumer vs. the Consumer Unconscious

L-R: Whitney Dailey, Suzanne Shelton and Talia Arbit discuss The Good Life through the lens of consumer preferences, June 4 at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Sustainable Brands

Last week, over 2,000 representatives from our global community of sustainability practitioners, brand strategists, product and service innovators, thought leaders and other change-makers converged at SB’18 Vancouver to share their latest insights on a multitude of themes pertinent to all of those committed to improving business around the world. Here, we dig into brand and organizational efforts to get consumers to deliver their part of the equation, by putting their money where their mouths are.

Sustainability preferences and purchases: Evidence that consumers care

Several large-scale shifts are taking place in consumer perceptions of sustainable products. Research conducted by Sustainable Brands (SB) and Leger on consumer definitions of “the Good Life” has revealed a paradigm shift happening across both Canada and the US. Consumers now consider meaningful connection and balanced simplicity to be the most important elements in achieving a ‘good life.” This shift is happening across the board — encompassing political lines, genders and generations.

Brands can capitalize on the desires for meaningful connections and balanced simplicity, and many already have. SB’s Talia Arbit and Leger EVP Christian Bourque shared several examples; apps that facilitate mindfulness and meditation, such as headspace and calm, respond to the desire for balanced simplicity. REI’s #optoutside and Heineken’s “worlds apartcampaigns both draw on the demand for meaningful connections.



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The Shelton Group has identified additional meaningful consumer trends — when asked, consumers are increasingly able to identify specific manufacturers whose products they have either bought or rejected based on the manufacturer’s environmental record. Typically, only 6 percent of respondents could identify a company when asked. Three years ago, this increased to 20 percent of respondents, and is now holding steady at 16 percent. Additionally, 40 percent of consumers would now like to be seen as someone who buys eco-friendly products.

Cone Communications has identified many brands that are embedding causes into their business, rather than transitionally supporting certain causes. The business value of this embedded purpose includes opportunity for deeper bond-building, expansion of the consumer base, and enlisting of advocates who amplify the brand message. In addition, ‘purpose advertising’ products often sell better than traditionally marketed products. VP of Marketing Whitney Dailey explained that Cone has compared product advertising with purpose-driven, low-cost and high-quality emphasis, and has found that purpose complements quality aspects to bring a product to the top in several categories.

Taken together, the trends shared through this research suggest that messaging around sustainability is shifting to align with the consumer, by moving away from the functional to include information on social and emotional aspects.

“Consumers definitely need the job to be done — that is not changing,” explained Kirti Singh, Chief Analytics and Insights Officer at P&G, “What is changing is that it doesn’t stop there. Consumers have an increasing expectation for brands to deliver on emotional or social needs that they have — raising the bar on how brands connect with the consumer.”

Why you may have bought that box of Oreos at 2am

Fast-forward to Thursday, the final day of SB’18 Vancouver, to a session that delved into the psychological processes involved in purchasing. The classical economic view of consumer decision-making assumes that customers rationally weigh the pros and cons of competing products to select one that best fits their needs. But as anyone who has compulsively bought a giant box of Oreos at 2am can tell you, purchasing decisions are not always so logically driven. Consumers report a desire to buy sustainable products, but their purchasing decisions do not always reflect that desire. As marketers, how can we close this frustrating gap between intention and action?

The psychological processes that influence this intention-action gap have been explored through the field of decision neuroscience. Neuroscientists conduct experiments using tools such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to explore the activation of different brain regions. Certain regions of the brain are activated when a customer makes purchasing decisions. Michael Smith, Principal Scientist at Adaptation Research, explained that scientists have observed reduced activation in the reward system in the brain when consumers are viewing ‘green’ ads. Because consumers are not aware of the psychological factors at play in decision-making, the best way to capture these processes is to use measures that don’t rely on a conscious response, such as reaction time measures, eye tracking or “fast” choice tasks. By coupling these with more traditional market research methods, such as surveys, we can paint a fuller picture of the rational and irrational components in the product-purchasing process.

In addition, Manuel Garcia, SVP at Ipsos, explained that emotional intensity during the purchasing process can be monitored through physiological methods, including electroencephelogram (EEG), which measures brain waves; or galvanic skin response (GSR), which measures the amount of sweat conductance on the skin. These studies have indicated that ‘green’ consumer decision-making involves a high degree of emotional processing.

Matthew Tullman, co-founder and CEO of Merchant Mechanics, then described a recent study that used a combination of eye tracking, biometrics, and EEG to explore the effect of food cues on consumer choices. The study first measured consumer responses to a variety of brands, creating a hierarchy of brand perceptions that ranged from “healthy” to “unhealthy.” Healthy and unhealthy brands were then paired with healthy or unhealthy foods and displayed to the consumer — for example, a McDonald’s salad represents an unhealthy brand selling a healthy food.

The study revealed two phenomena — the halo effect, where people believe that the unhealthy foods marketed by healthy brands are better for them; and the horns effect, where consumers believe that the healthy products sold by unhealthy brands are more harmful to health. The study has implications for the obesity crisis, as consumers may be purchasing high-calorie foods from “healthy” brands without realizing that they have made an unhealthy choice. It is also possible that these two phenomena could also be at play in consumer perceptions of “sustainable” and “unsustainable” brands.

Strengthening the ‘pull factor’ of sustainability

Both conscious and unconscious mental processes can contribute to the gap between sustainable consumer preferences and measurable consumer behaviors. A psychologically-rooted approach could help brands to harness these preferences in a more impactful way, driving sustainable purchases up to meet them.

This very opportunity was presented to attending brands on day one of SB’s conference. By collaborating to surface and test hypotheses, marketers who join the new #BrandsforGood collaboratory will work together to create and refine a tool that can shape culture towards truly desiring sustainable lifestyles.


Alex is Coordinator for Member and Advisory services at SB, providing member companies with sustainability research to support their goals. 

Alex received her MS in Applied Social Psychology from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she focused on… [Read more about Alexandra Smith]


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