April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a significant milestone for the world and its inhabitants. During the current fight against the novel COVID-19 virus, stay-at-home restrictions around the globe have resulted in some startling positive outcomes for the environment, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions, cleaner air, and flourishing flora and fauna.
Dolphins, for example, swim freely in the now clear blue canal waters of Venice, wolves that were once thought exterminated have been spotted in northern France’s Normandy for the first time in a century, and China has reported a 25 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions for the beginning of 2020.
But does it take a devastating crisis for us to see the natural environment renewed, at least temporarily, and urge us to think about the dire challenges still remaining for our fragile earth, including the climate crisis, plastic pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and overconsumption?
As marketing professors, we have worked with businesses, studied the latest consumer research findings, and examined the social science literature to conclude that some of the most vexing challenges still facing the modern environmental movement are consumers and their “intention-behavior gap.”
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Polls and surveys often report that consumers say they want greener, healthier, and more socially responsible products, and options, but they often fail to act on those intentions. Our research has uncovered some ways to help address that problem.
We published our findings earlier this year in the journal, Sustainability, entitled, “Turning Consumers Green.” We argue that businesses should take the lead to encourage their customers to “go green.” Why? The reasons are three-fold. Through regulation and self-motivation, corporations are increasingly seeking ways to reduce their carbon and environmental footprints, and their performance depends on how consumers buy, use, and dispose of their products.
Two, businesses can often save money by encouraging their customers to conserve resources, such as reusing towels and shutting off lights and air conditioning in hotels. Finally, because businesses understand their customers better than anyone else, they’re in the best position to develop greener products that can satisfy their customers’ known desires.
Our study uncovered five principles, drawn from the academic literature, case studies, and the latest marketing trends, to make environmentally preferable products and behaviors more attractive to mainstream consumers.
1. Promote the consumer value of green products
Too often, companies suffer from “green marketing myopia” where they focus too much on green products’ environmental benefits without promoting what’s in it for consumers. Environmental concerns rarely influence product choice for mainstream consumers.
Fortunately, most green products offer inherent mainstream consumer value that, when promoted, can make a difference, such as money savings, illustrated by LED bulbs’ energy efficiency; health and safety, exemplified by non-toxic cleaning agents that can be positioned as “safe for children”; convenience, which is a key benefit of solar-powered gadgets; better performance as found with front load washing machines’ gentler cleaning action on clothing; and status as exemplified by Tesla’s muscle car sex appeal. Highlighting the consumer value of green products can make them more desirable to mainstream consumers.
2. Win hearts not just minds
Academic research finds that messages that resonate with people’s self-identity, aspirations, and emotions can be powerfully persuasive. The “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-littering campaign is a case in point. Texas pride runs deep among the state’s inhabitants, and the Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation leveraged that pride to discourage littering on Texas roadways, starting in the mid-1980s.
Through macho humor and song, a parade of Texas athletes, musicians, and celebrities lent their talents to the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign to make clear that trashing Texas was simply unbecoming to true-hearted Texans. The acerbic catchphrase and campaign worked. Within a year, litter on Texas highways was down 29 percent, and within six years, it was down 72 percent.
3. Make green normal
Green products and behaviors are often viewed as out of the ordinary, which can inhibit their adoption. Thus, normalizing green behaviors through messaging and social influence is crucial.
Tesla seemed to achieve Super Bowl marketing nirvana – without having to air any commercials during the game – when players from the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers touted in a CNBC interview that the one thing they shared in common was their love of Teslas.
The athletes talked about how impressed they were by the performance of their cars that just happened to be electric. Tesla has become the NFL’s hottest new ride! Such messaging is in line with research findings that consumers are more likely to engage in certain behaviors when they perceive that other people, especially those whom they admire, are acting in the same way and positioning green as normal.
4. Leverage mainstream social media influencers
Marketers are increasingly turning to social media influencers – bloggers, YouTubers, podcasters, and Instagram ambassadors – to reach consumers to promote their products.
While there are many “green” influencers on Instagram and YouTube, we suggest engaging with mainstream social media influencers who can position green products and behaviors as normal and a part of an influencer’s routine and lifestyle.
A case in point is Adidas’ UltraBoost running shoes made from recycled plastic bottles, designed to prevent such plastics from entering the ocean. Adidas has purposely partnered with high-profile mainstream athlete influences, such as swimmer Ian Thorpe (@ian.thorpe) and rugby player Beauden Barrett (@beaudenbarrett) to showcase UltraBoost’s functioning and durability as well as raising awareness of the ocean plastics crisis.
5. Dialogue with public policymakers
Finally, it is important for companies to engage with policymakers to help shape government subsidies, tax incentives, and energy-efficiency mandates to encourage green product adoption.
One of today’s most significant policy debates facing the United States centers on the extension of $7500 federal tax credits for electric vehicles (EVs), which decreases for each carmaker after its EV sales volume reaches 200,000, eventually disappearing over time. Tesla and General Motors are no longer eligible for the tax credit, and Nissan and Toyota are expected to reach the 200,000 car-threshold by 2021.
Analysts believe that as more competitively priced EVs come onto the market, aimed at mainstream car buyers, federal tax incentives will become more important than ever.
A tax credit may represent a crucial decision factor as buyers compare EVs with traditional gasoline-powered cars that are typically sold with dealer discounts and incentives. Thus, automakers, electric utilities, and environmental organizations need to continue the dialogue with policymakers to extend the EV federal tax credit and help catalyze the adoption of EVs.
Businesses, large and small, have the responsibility to offer greener products and options, and we believe our five principles can serve as guideposts to help business practitioners motivate their customers to adopt those greener products and options.
The 50th anniversary of Earth Day marks an important time to not only celebrate the environmental movement’s achievements but also contemplate the challenges ahead. Businesses are in a unique position to engage their customers and help close the consumer intention-behavior gap. As talk evolves about reopening the economy responsibly in a post-COVID-19 world, businesses should also consider steering their planning and operations onto a more sustainable path for their customers as well.
* Antje R.H. Graul, PhD., is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Her research interests lie in the area of consumer decision-making and behavior regarding sustainable modes of consumption such as consumer sharing and electric vehicle adoption. Before following her research interest, she spent two years in the industry focusing on marketing communications and public relations at the BMW Group, Germany. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Edwin R. Stafford, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University, Logan, whose research and expertise center on sustainable entrepreneurship and marketing of renewable energy, clean technology, green products, and sustainability issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.