An Introduction to BrandSpark’s Perspective and Research Approach for Sustainability

It has become common for marketers to hear that sustainability has hit a “tipping point”, and statistics abound indicating that sustainability is seen an important issue by the vast majority of consumers. But while consumers say they want more sustainable products, they do not consistently buy them – at least to the degree such lofty statistics might predict. Why then is it often difficult to get a significant share of any given category’s consumers to buy more sustainable products?

The three key reasons driving the sustainability disconnect

BrandSpark research has found that there are three key reasons driving the disconnect between very high stated interest, and relatively low adoption.

  1. Data Interpretation. “Agreeing” sustainability is important is a fairly tepid level of support and is not something a business case should be built off of.
  2. Context. The word ‘sustainability’ means different things, to different individuals, in different contexts. And as you will see, by category.
  3. Trade-offs. Sustainability does not exist in a vacuum. At the product level, consumers are often being asked to make a sacrifice – some combination of worse performance, less easy to use, and/or higher price.

When you put these three elements together, it starts becoming clear why selling more sustainable products to a significant share of the market is harder than it sounds. Rather than thinking about it as a “mass market” opportunity to go after, marketers need to take a more targeted approach.

The mass market is pragmatic about sustainability purchase decisions

This more targeted approach comes from first understanding the overall consumer landscape most companies face in relation to sustainability. The market fragments into three groups, which can vary in size slightly by category. The first two are relatively easy to understand, with their feelings about sustainability often baked right into their personal identity.

  • Early Adopters (about 20%). This is the group extremely enthusiastic about sustainability, and willing to make many trade-offs – perhaps even paying more for worse performance.
  • Resistors (about 20%). This group is the opposite of Early Adopters, and can be even less than interested – more sustainable products might actually push them away.

In-between these two groups are the 60% of the market we call pragmatists, and this is where it gets complicated. Pragmatists “agree” sustainability is important, but they are not totally committed to it. Unlike Early Adopters, this group is more likely to be looking for incremental change rather than wholesale disruption. They might be willing to make some sacrifices on ease of use, but not necessarily big ones, and price sensitivity is higher. Beyond the sacrifices they will be asked to make, there is a complex web of need states, brand stubbornness, price sensitivity, and a variety of other factors beyond sustainability itself will factor into each individual purchase decision.

For a more sustainable products to start achieving some degree of mass market success, marketers have to find a way into this group. But they can’t just target the group as a whole, as all the various considerations and factors are too disparate.

Instead, marketers need to find their early pragmatists if they want to transition to attracting the mass market – the subset within this group that will accept the trade-offs a particular more sustainable branded product is asking them to make today, if communicated the right way. And then, if the opportunity is large enough, fine-tune the offering to go directly after this particular group. 

Doing this is what BrandSpark’s Understanding Sustainability Process is all about.

Initial phase of BrandSpark’s Understanding Sustainability Process (USP): Rich qualitative understanding

BrandSpark’ Understanding Sustainability Process (USP) is focused on finding, understanding, and optimizing the opportunity with pragmatists in an integrated qualitative/quantitative research approach. The first stage of this process explores category specific consumer needs, behaviors, and attitudes in relation to sustainability.

Earlier this year we ran a pilot Qualitative research study, with a focus on two specific categories – food (yogurt), and clothing. Over a two-day period, we engaged a group of female pragmatists, 18 – 35, in conversation and immersive exercises about sustainability in these categories. Among the various objectives of this study was to understand how they think about sustainability in general; how it may vary at a category level; and how they work through the process of evaluating “more sustainable” purchase decisions at a product level.

Marketers are invited to contact us for a full overview of the findings. But beyond interesting insights into the general pragmatic nature of this group overall (and how they navigate the sustainability landscape both in general, and within each category), what was most compelling was the wildly different contexts sustainability was thought about in each category.  

Different context: How sustainability is thought about differently in the two categories

For this food category and segment, focus immediately went to the impact of what was in the more sustainable product on their own health and wellness, followed by considerations of how their purchases impacted their local community and economy. Considerations about the impact on the environment were actually a peripheral consideration, if at all.

In this specific clothing category and segment, the order was reversed. The longer-term impacts to the environment were top of mind, followed by considerations in relation to the community – particularly in relation to what would be done with the clothing once they were personally finished with it. What was in the clothing was a peripheral consideration, if at all. And with a particular focus on avoiding ‘fast fashion’, it was clear that quality cues proving the clothing would last a long time would have more impact on their sustainability perceptions than (say) being made from more sustainable fibres.

This is a vivid example of the different contexts that different brands and marketers will face in relation to sustainability. One marketer is trying to reach a consumer in the initial mindset of the short-term impact of what is in the product on their own health; the other a consumer in a longer-term mindset of environmental impact once done with it, and very little consideration of what is in it.  From these two very different starting points on sustainability, two very different journeys commence.

Contact BrandSpark to better optimize your more sustainable product launches

BrandSpark wants to help companies succeed in cracking into the mass market with their ‘more sustainable’ product launches, starting with identifying and understanding their early pragmatists. To learn more about how we can help you (or details on insights from the case study conducted) through a rigorous process including the rich qualitative exploration outlined above, and a quantitative component focused on evaluating, optimizing and building the business case for a particular “more sustainable” product launch, contact us.