Manufacturers are increasingly producing and promoting sustainable products (i.e., products that have a positive social and/or environmental impact). This increase mirrors public interest in sustainability, as evidenced by widespread coverage in the press and public opinion surveys suggesting strong consumer demand for these products. Despite the attention sustainability is receiving, actual sales of sustainable products still represent only a small fraction of overall consumer goods sales. However, note that though the market share of sustainable products has been relatively weak in many product categories (e.g., household cleaning products), it has been relatively strong in other categories (e.g., personal care products). This qualified success hints at a variable that is differentially affecting the influence of sustainability on preference. The current research shows that the effect of sustainability on consumers’ product preferences depends on the type of benefit valued in a given product category. In product categories for which strength-related attributes are the key determinant of purchase, such as automobile tires, sustainability can be a liability and actually decrease preference. In contrast, in product categories in which consumers seek gentleness-related attributes, such as baby shampoo, sustainability can enhance product preference. The authors uncover the reason for this difference. Consumers implicitly associate ethicality/sustainability with concepts such as “gentle,” “safe,” “healthy,” and “mild” and a lack of ethicality/sustainability with concepts such as “strength,” “power,” and “toughness.” These associations lead consumers to be reluctant to purchase sustainable products in product categories in which strength is valued. The authors also find that consumers are hesitant to admit that they would not actually buy a sustainable alternative; in these studies, it was necessary to use indirect “projective” techniques to uncover consumers’ true beliefs and preferences. Fortunately for marketers of sustainable brands in these product categories, the sustainability liability can be attenuated through marketing communications. For example, the findings show that without any explicit information about product strength, consumers prefer to purchase a standard automobile tire over an “eco” tire made with sustainable methods and materials. However, when both the standard and the “eco” tires are “guaranteed strong,” this apparent rejection of the sustainable tire no longer occurs. The findings lead to the following recommendations for marketers: Marketers of sustainable products for which gentleness-related attributes are valued can use advertising, packaging, and so forth, to emphasize sustainability. In this case, sustainability should not harm, and may even help, product sales. Conversely, marketers of sustainable products for which strength-related attributes are valued must actively counter the sustainability liability. Emphasizing sustainability in this context may actually harm product sales; the best way to avoid this potential negative impact is to provide explicit information about product strength. In summary, this research helps explain why sustainable products may not always prevail in the marketplace despite consumer interest in them. The findings should improve the odds of success for companies interested in developing and marketing sustainable products, as well as support many consumers’ desire to better align their values with their consumption behavior.
Michael G. Luchs is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Mason School of Business at the College of William and Mary. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. Dr. Luchs also earned an MS in Marketing from the University of Texas at Austin, an MBA from the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business, and a BSE in Mechanical Engineering and a BA in Psychology from Tufts University. Before earning his PhD, Dr. Luchs worked for more than a decade as a consultant and as a manager in industry, specializing in new product development and product management. His research interests include sustainability/ethical consumerism, product design, and creativity.
Rebecca Walker Naylor received her PhD in Marketing from the University of Texas at Austin in May 2006. After serving on the faculty at the University of South Carolina for three years, she joined the faculty of the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University in June 2009. Dr. Naylor’s research focuses on the area of consumer behavior. Specifically, her research has explored consumer intuitions, consumer inference making, consumer responses to ethical products, food and health decision making, and consumer disposal practices. Her current projects continue to explore these topics, as well as social influence and consumer-to-consumer product recommendations. Dr. Naylor’s research has appeared in Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, International Journal of Research in Marketing, Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, and Marketing Letters.
Julie R. Irwin received her PhD in Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Before joining the Marketing Department at the McCombs School at the University of Texas, where she is a full Professor of Marketing, she served on the marketing faculty in the Stern School of Business at New York University and as a visiting professor in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of Dr. Irwin’s publications explore consumer judgment and decision making, with an emphasis on purchasing decisions involving ethical issues. She also publishes work on statistical methodology. Dr. Irwin’s research has appeared in journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes and in books such as Wharton on Decision Making and Economics and Happiness: Framing the Analysis.
Raj Raghunathan earned his PhD from the Stern School of Business at New York University and is currently Associate Professor of Marketing in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. Raj’s work juxtaposes theories from psychology, behavioral sciences, decision theory, and marketing to document and explain interrelationships between affect and consumption behavior. Raj’s work has appeared in top journals, including Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Psychology, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. His work has also been cited in mass media outlets, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Austin American Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, and Self magazine. Raj was recognized as a Marketing Science Young Scholar in 2006 and was awarded the National Science Foundation Career Grant Award in 2007.
Journal of Marketing, Volume 74, Number 5, September 2010
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