Consumers’ Preferences Toward Eco-Friendly Products Boil Down to How Their Brains Are Wired

Abstract thinkers tend to be more concerned with the future

background is various shades of green; in the middle is a white circle; inside the circle is the eco friendly, reduce-reuse-recycle sign
Consumers are often divided into concrete or abstract thinkers, which determines their purchasing habits.
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Ask shoppers if they want to buy products that are better for the environment and most will answer with a definitive yes. Check their shopping carts, however, and you’ll often get a very different story.

Eco-friendly products are now widely available across the retail landscape, from all-natural cleaning products to energy efficient appliances to electric automobiles. Yet, many consumers are reluctant to choose them over less environmentally friendly options. There are several key reasons to this. Many assume that sustainable products are less effective, costlier and, especially in aesthetics-driven categories such as clothing and cars, less attractive. Some consumers also wonder if it will really make a difference.

Recent research shows that there is another force that’s also holding people back, and it could have significant implications for marketers.

Those warm, feel-good ads about products that are better for the future of the planet could easily miss the very audience they’re targeting.

Consumers can be roughly divided into two groups: those who are concrete thinkers (focused on the present and specific details) and those who tend to think abstract (big picture-minded and concerned with the future). The research found that abstract thinkers are drawn to messages about how the products can help save the planet or how they’re better for future generations. Because concrete thinkers are focused on the present and more interested in specific product attributes, those eco-friendly messages can be completely lost on them. They want to know if it will do the job, how it will perform and how it will compare to tried and true products.

It’s especially important for marketers to understand that when consumers are shopping at the grocery store, most tend to adopt a concrete here-and-now thinking style, even if they are typically abstract thinkers. In the process, those warm, feel-good ads about products that are better for the future of the planet could easily miss the very audience they’re targeting.

So what should marketers do?

First and foremost, they need to understand their customers and what type of thinkers they are. When they target concrete thinkers, they should focus on the specific product attributes and the here and now. When they target abstract thinkers, they should talk about broader future implications.

One of the biggest mistakes marketers make is trying to hedge their bets by creating ads that combine both big-picture and specifics, but that tends to muddy the message and confuse consumers.

Instead, advertisers who have multiple types of messages would be well-advised to put them in different places or position them to different consumers. For instance, a laundry detergent company could highlight its planet-saving side to an environmentally-minded audience and emphasize performance, savings or immediate health benefits to a general audience. If they try to communicate everything in one message, not only can the strategy fail but it can backfire.

Some companies already seem to understand that future-focused, eco-friendly messages aren’t for everyone. For example, Tesla has become an industry leader when it comes to eco-friendly automobiles, yet most of their advertising focuses on the sleek look and advanced performance of the cars—and in the case of the Model 3—the more affordable price. As a result, concrete thinking consumers can be proud of the model they have and its other accomplishments.

It’s also important to note that when marketers target concrete thinkers, they don’t need to drop the eco-friendly message; they just need to make it immediate and tangible. For example, in a recent campaign, Tide challenged consumers to do their laundry using cold water and do quicker washes to save energy. At the same time, they calculated the specific effect of those energy savings: switch to cold water for one year, and you can save enough energy to charge your phone for a lifetime. Because they explain the specific outcomes of using the product in this way, concrete thinking consumers are likely to connect with the notion of sustainability.

If companies take a few key steps, they can attract both sets of customers: those who see the forest as well as those who see the trees. If they don’t, they risk getting lost in the woods.

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