Sustainability Is Important, But Category Claims Are More Critical: Study

Sure, sustainability sells.  But will its use in your marketing messages attract new customers?  Probably not by itself.

That's the conclusion of a just-released research report from researchers from New York University's Stern School of Business jointed with Edelman Communications to examine best practices for effective sustainability communications.

That's not to say sustainability claims aren't important. They are.  In fact, the study concludes they are "very appealing" and significantly expand brand reach by bringing in new customers.  

But claims that are germane to the category – "tastes good," for instance – are paramount and non-negotiable.  "Overall, category claims were the most compelling claims tested," the researchers said, followed by sustainability claims.  

What do consumers care most about? Themselves and their families.  They want to protect their health by buying products made without ingredients harmful to human health.  They also care about saving money and producing less waste, supporting local farms and farmers.  Also high on the list of consumer concerns: their children and future generations and animal health.

Last but not least in the list of top consumer concerns is sustainable sourcing and local sourcing of products and their ingredients.  

Bev/al marketers put a lot of emphasis on claims about the sustainability of their packages and certifications.  That's nice, but consumers can less about packaging – unless it is made from 100% recycled material, the study found.  If you're going to tout your packaging, be sure to spell out why the consumer should care if you want your appeal to jump significantly because of the packaging claim.  

For instance, if you want to tout your lighter weight bottles, be sure to point out that they reduce shipping costs and the savings are passed on to the consumer, or that the lighter-weight bottles helps reduce pollution and greenhouse gases.

Likewise, if you want to highlight the fact that your wine or your cocktail to go is packaging in an aluminum can, be sure to highlight the consumer benefits: lighter, easier to carry to the beach, stays cooler, recycles better.

And with few exceptions, the study also found that consumers care less about certifications such as "USDA Organic," Energy Star, B Corp, or Member of Alliance for Water Stewardship.  That's not to say you shouldn't make the claims, it's just that you must understand other factors are more important.

Given the flap over Bud Light's use of an Instagram "influencer," we found it especially interesting that the consumers surveyed by NYU said the channels that most influenced them were TV ads (40%), packaging (40%) and in-store signage (31%).  None of the digital media topped 20% in terms of influencing purchase decisions – Facebook came in at 20%, the brand's own website at 19%, TikTok at 18% and Instagram at 15%..

Needless to say, the influence a particular channel has varies based on generation.  For example, TikTok is almost as important (32%) as TV (34%) for Gen Z, but TV ads far outpace TikTok for both Millennials (37% to 15%) and Gen X (51% to 7%).  Packaging as a channel is equally influential for Millennials and Gen X consumers (42% and 42%), and only slightly less important for Gen Z consumers (36%).

When it comes to credibility, the study found that claims made on packaging, on product hangtags and in-store signage all had the most credibility, according to more that 50% of consumers.  Claims made  on the brand's website or via scannable QR codes for product information were viewed at equally credible (47%).

Publication/recommendation/review websites had lower credibility (42%), as did print and radio ads (tied at 41%) or recommendations by a store associate or salesperson (41%).  Forty percent (40%) rated TV ads as credible.  Digital display ads were rated least credible, being favored by only 34% of respondents.

Best Practices

"Sustainability by itself will not secure a leadership position," the researchers concluded, explaining that "consumers enter the category to seek core category benefits, e.g., food that tastes good, homecare products that work effectively or computers with good processing power.  

But sustainability will broaden reach and appeal, deepen the consumer connection, and should be leveraged as a core reason to believe, they said.  For example:

  • Marketers should link the sustainability claim to the category reason-for-being ("100% sustainably farmed for a great tasting product")
  • Focus the claim on the benefit to the consumer and their families, emphasizing the product is safe for human consumption ("Made without chemicals harmful to human health") and, where possible, that it also provides a personal monetary benefit ("less waste," "lower cost," etc.).  
  • Articulate the claim with an emotional component, particularly as it relates to the long-term health of the plant or their children.
  • Understand that the term sustainable, as it relates to 'sustainable sourcing and production" is clear and compelling.  
  • Understand that consumers are concerned about animal welfare.  While it doesn't apply to bev/al marketers, other consumer package goods marketers might include communications to insure that no harm is done to animals in testing the product.
  • If possible, tie the claims to farmers and local sourcing
  • Recognize the regenerative agriculture claims are compelling when focused on local farms and their farms ("Partnering with local farmers to ensure the long-term health of the farm for the future of our food systems" or "Partnering with local farmers to ensure the farms stay climate resiliant, nutrient dense."
  • When communicating the more scientific aspects of sustainability, go beyond outcomes and tie them to reasons to care
  • Quantify sustainability for greater impact ("Using 1 million tons of ocean-recovered plastic bottles")
  • Use certifications to guard against greenwashing, but don't rely on them as the sole point of information.
  • Try to use fully recyclable packaging.
  • Choose the channels that deliver the broadest reach and have the highest trust factors.

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