Do as i say, not as i do

Most people purport to care about a company’s green credentials and trust information they might be given about it. But a study suggests that consumer behaviour falls short of their brand expectations

We all say we want to be green, but what do consumers actually think and do? EMAP Advertising conducted research with 2,500 consumers – using its insight panel The Inside – to find out.

The signs look promising, for only 14% of respondents say they don’t care whether a company is environmentally friendly or not; and just 17% say they mistrust companies that promote themselves to be environmentally friendly. Linked to this is the fact that consumers cite messages from brands, and in particular advertising, as one of the most trusted sources of information in this area.

It isn’t just governments, scientists and news reports that influence consumers; the message from the public is loud and clear: it is important for companies to “do their bit” when it comes to the environment, particularly in the context of a world in which they as individuals are being asked to do more.

Consumers are generally dissatisfied with companies when it comes to discharging their environmental responsibilities. In the research, supermarkets fare best, but even in this category only 35% of respondents say they think the major retailers are performing well. Nevertheless, compared with other sectors the supermarkets rate well, for instance only 18% of the respondents think car companies are executing their green duties well, and only 8% think clothes manufacturers are doing their bit for the environment.

So it seems companies have some way to go before they can be seen as playing their part in solving the environmental problem. On the other hand, it means there is plenty of scope for companies to carve out a position that differentiates them from their competition.

Of course, successfully communicating green messages is difficult for brands. On the surface consumer attitudes towards the environment are changing but, in some cases, behavioural patterns are ingrained and -consumers are not quite as environmentally friendly as they would like to think they are.

The Inside research shows even consumers who consider themselves to be very “green” are not always willing to change their behaviour to cut down their impact on the environment. A good example of this can be found in the aviation sector, where despite extensive media coverage, there is no sign that people’s holidaying behaviour is changing. A significant majority of consumers are not willing to avoid using air travel to get to their destination. Underlying this reticence is the fact that people’s attitudes towards flying have not yet been significantly affected by environmental concerns: only 11% of those who fly feel in any way guilty about it.

The research shows similar behaviour patterns when it comes to cars, suggesting that people are unable to link individual behaviour to the environmental damage they cause – or at least they don’t want to make the link. There remains a substantial gap between people’s surface attitudes and actual behaviour, and changing behavioural patterns is likely to require substantial government intervention.

Given this gap, it can be hard for brands to judge what they need to do from a marketing perspective. How much will being “green” really affect consumers’ attitudes towards their brand, and people’s purchasing decisions? An interesting clue comes from behaviour and attitudes to recycling. Here there are clear signs of change: just over 40% of respondents say they had increased their recycling over the past 12 months. The findings also indicate that rather than recycling occurring as a result of people becoming more disposed towards it, their attitudes change after they have started to do it.

In other words, behaviour is driving the attitude, not the other way round – doing the act creates a virtuous -circle, whereby attitudes gradually change as the behaviour becomes habitual, which then reinforces the behaviour pattern – a good sign for government and local council initiatives “forcing” people to change their habits.

So what does this mean for advertisers? One possible consequence that brands must consider is the danger of being left behind. If a competitor takes innovative environmental steps, expectations of the whole sector might then be raised. This in turn could lead to consumers judging other brands in the product sector more harshly.

The findings demonstrate that not only are consumers ready and willing to hear green messages from advertisers, but as government begins to encourage a change in individuals’ behaviour, consumers will increasingly expect brands to be doing all they can too.

The Inside, published March 2007 by EMAP Advertising

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