Global market trends confirm that companies are increasingly introducing green products. Many companies hope to shift consumer perception of their brands with these new products.
However, new research finds that inciting positive brand associations is not as simple as one, two, green.
In their report “Green Claims and Message Frames: How Green Products Change Brand Attitude,” authors Mitchell Olsen, Rebecca Slotegraaf and Sandeep Chandukala from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University investigate the extent to which brand associations can change after the introduction of a green product.
The researchers examine green product introductions across 75 brands over a four-year period. They take a special look at fast-moving consumer goods.
Though they indicate that green product introductions can indeed improve brand perception, this is greatly influenced by the quantity of green messaging, the product type and the company’s credibility.
Humanizing Your Company
Socially responsible branding has a powerful ability to humanize a company. In this way, it has a leg up on conventional positioning strategies.
But how can green products be part of a successful branding or re-branding strategy?
Brand identification refers to consumers’ most salient or central associations with a brand. These brand associations can be weakened or reinforced by a brand manager’s actions. As such, socially responsible brand extensions and marketing efforts can change brand attitudes.
For example, yogurt producer Yoplait’s commitment to battling breast cancer is reinforced by its advertising, event sponsorship and product attributes, such as its pink-lid packaging. Yoplait has nurtured this specific brand identity since 2001.
Rule of [Green] Thumb: Less is More
Brand managers will not only introduce green products, they will also communicate how these products are green. This is an example of message framing – when certain aspects of a product are highlighted to make them more salient for consumers.
After tracking products over a four-year period, the researchers found that consumers are often willing to pay more for green products than for non-green rivals.
But there was a catch or two – or more.
When Sephora introduced Express Cleansing Wipes in 2011, the company claimed the product was “biodegradable,” “contained no petrochemicals,” was “all natural,” “contained no paraben” and “contained no artificial colour.”
Did Sephora go overboard?
Too many messages could dilute major positive changes to branding. The researchers advise not to overload a green product with multiple messages. The fewer claims used, the less likely information overload will occur.
Consumers are also more likely to become skeptical when a campaign makes a number of claims.
Where is the Grass Always Greener?
A second note from the study concerns positive versus negative framing.
Positive framing emphasizes potential gains or benefits from the use of a product. For environmental sustainability, positively framed claims emphasize the possession of something beneficial to the environment such as being “biodegradable” or “recyclable.”
Negative framing focuses on the prevention of a potentially negative consequence or loss, with claims highlighting the removal or lack of something harmful such as “no pesticides” or “no phosphate.”
The researchers find that negative framing is more effective in changing consumer perceptions. This kind of framing is even more potent if the product comes from a “vice category,” which offers immediate gratification and is associated with negative, longer-term consequences. A “virtue category” product, on the other hand, focuses on healthfulness or benefits.
What does all this mean?
If you are a brand manager or communications professional, think twice before running an expensive campaign. Then, if you’re going for it, think about the how.
Applying green framing to a virtue category can be redundant. An organic snack bar announcing its packaging is biodegradable is less effective than a fast food restaurant making a similar declaration about its packaging. It might be best for the organic snack bar to continue investing in responsible practices – and allowing consumers to delightedly stumble upon these practices themselves.
Just know that consumers often do look for justification in their vice category purchases. And the right green messaging can offer just that.
If You Say You’re Green, You Better Mean It
It may be tempting to review these findings and use green messaging to improve a brand’s image. Seasoned communications professionals know better.
The study warns against participating in deceptive messaging or “green washing.”
Investors are increasingly demanding greater disclosure of a firm’s investments in greenhouse gas reduction, renewable energy and energy efficiencies. A firm’s investments and performance in such environmental impact areas reveal its commitment to sustainability and create environmental legitimacy. Firms that lack such accounts are vulnerable to accusations of negligence.
Reputation acts as a signal. Firms using a green product to distract from rather than contribute to the brand’s sustainable efforts are taking a risk.
Communicating a new green product plays a pivotal role in the success of positive branding. The study identifies quantity, framing and credibility as key factors in how a green innovation should be articulated to consumers to have effect.
If done right, the proper introduction of a green product can both support the company’s sustainability efforts and significantly improve brand associations with consumers at large.
Olsen, M.C., Slotegraaf, R.J., and Chandukala, S.R. 2014. “Green Claims and Message Frames: How Green New Products Change Brand Attitude.” Journal of Marketing. 78.5: 119-37.