Protecting the environment might have risen higher up business agendas over the past few years as sustainability has become a new corporate buzzword. But new research shows that consumer purchasing choices are still largely price-driven.
The second Sustainability Tracking Study by the Direct Marketing Association, Onepost and market insight consultancy fast.MAP, released exclusively to Marketing Week, surveyed 1,031 UK consumers in July.
The report reveals that 78% say they see product price as more important than environmental issues, an increase from 36% since the first Sustainability Tracking Study was carried out in December last year. Many consumers don’t appear interested in investing in environmentally friendly products, with 52% admitting they are not prepared to spend more on such items. Just 9% say they would be prepared to do so.
However, this is a trend shaped by the recession that will be reversed in line with the improvement of the economy, fast.MAP managing director David Cole claims. “As soon as we’re out of our economic problems, there will be a resurgence and price will no longer be the issue it is,” he says.
Overall, though, the results indicate that “more people are trying where possible to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle”, notes Cole, as nearly 90% of respondents say they now recycle, up from 57% in the first study.
The amount of people shunning buy-one-get-one-free offers to reduce waste has jumped from 2% in December to 13%, while concern over the environmental impact of product packaging has risen from 26% to 38%. Cole suggests that this attitude to Bogof deals could be because of news stories highlighting the waste such deals potentially create. He says: “I have been exposed to a lot of negative media coverage about this so I tend to think twice about buying Bogofs. With the sheer number of people now sorting their rubbish, it has reached a point where people can see for themselves the implications of excess packaging.”
But it’s not just about choosing whether to spend money on bulk deals in major supermarkets. The number of people who say they purchase local produce jumped to 44% from 19% in December, meaning brands that communicate such a message have much to gain, argues Cole. He says: “There is a real “feelgood” factor attached to purchasing local produce and it seems like an easy thing people can do. The idea of supporting local farmers and businesses is probably wrapped up in that too.” However, price could still play a part in consumers not purchasing locally sourced products, which Cole suggests is something that retailers should be mindful of.
Having the right logo on packaging suggests to consumers that brands are doing their bit for the planet, the research shows. Just over half (52%) believe that displaying a Recycle logo means that a company is environmentally friendly, up from 49% in December.
Brands that display the Recycle logo on their promotional material also benefit from increased levels of consumer trust, the research shows. Thirty-three per cent say that direct mail featuring a Recycle logo is from an environmentally friendly company, compared with 7% who believe this to be true when the logo isn’t displayed, showing just how powerful sustainability logos are at communicating messages to consumers.
Cole explains that addressing the DM directly to the recipient also helps a company look more environmentally friendly. “A personalised communication has a feel of something less mass market – a non-personalised communication is seen as high volume with little targeting,” he explains. “If the company has gone to the trouble of writing to you personally, then it has less of a feel of a mass leaflet drop.”
Using a window envelope to send direct mail, however, is a mistake, the research shows. Around a third (33%) say receiving direct mail in a window envelope gives them a negative perception of the company, up from 21% in the previous study.
But it’s not just about how you generate marketing collateral, the sector you operate in makes a difference in how sustainable you are perceived to be. The charity sector is the most sustainable sector, according to the study, with 38% linking good work with green credentials. Cole claims: “Charity has the benefit of being linked to a feelgood factor. Charities are perceived as good, so the public thinks they aren’t capable of doing bad.”
The other sectors in this study – automotive, financial services, travel and leisure, publishing and mail order – are not seen in such a positive light. Travel and leisure remains the least green industry, with just 4% believing the sector to be very environmentally friendly. Automotive isn’t far behind, as only 5% believe the industry to be very environmentally friendly, with 71% considering the sector to be environmentally unfriendly. And although 47% still view the mail order industry as environmentally unfriendly, it is a 2% improvement on the December results.
Cole suggests: “Even though some companies in the automotive industry are investing in greener technologies like electric or hybrid cars, it’s very early days and those numbers are just a drop in the ocean.” He adds that consumer perceptions of this sector could change once new technologies become more mainstream.
The travel industry may also be less damaged by these perceptions than the figures suggest, Cole adds. “I haven’t seen much evidence of people spending less because of this. I don’t think people are choosing not to go on holidays abroad for environmental reasons.”
The Sustainability Tracking study results indicate that there is a mixed message coming from consumers when it comes to sustainability. Consumers have an increased amount of environmental consciousness, but many of their purchasing decisions remain price based.
Cole claims the gap between the two sentiments will be bridged as the country continues to climb out of recession. Brands should begin to prepare for this now by offering more product lines endorsed by some kind of sustainability programme as consumers will look increasingly to these logos to guide their purchasing decisions and brand loyalty.
WE ASK MARKETERS ON THE FRONTLINE WHETHER OUR ’TRENDS’ RESEARCH MATCHES THEIR EXPERIENCE ON THE GROUND
Alistair Macrow, vice-president of marketing, McDonald’s
Highlighted in this research is the fact that customers care about the provenance and quality of the food they eat, which is something we have focused on in recent advertising campaigns. A key insight for us around this has been that customers are confused by the volume and complexity of food provenance messaging. So we realised that we needed to bring the essence of McDonald’s – simple, easy enjoyment – to the story we tell about our food. For example, one of our campaigns honoured two things that are unmistakably British: unpredictable weather and first-rate farming.
It has become clear to us that customers still want to know about the fundamentals, so we’re continuing to tell the story about the basic building blocks of McDonald’s through our “That’s what makes McDonald’s” campaign, which highlights facts such as all our burgers are made with 100% British and Irish beef.
Feedback received following our campaigns around local produce is that our customers are often surprised to learn that we spend more than £490m each year on buying produce such as organic milk, free-range eggs and beef from more than 17,500 British and Irish farmers.
To extend this initiative, this year we threw open the doors to our supply chain through our Open Farms programme, which invited members of the public to visit some of the farms in Britain and Ireland that supply our menu.
We acknowledge that there is an increase in concern around product packaging, and reducing the amount of packaging that McDonald’s uses is something we are constantly challenging ourselves to do. We’ve made a number of changes, for example, switching to lighter, thinner packaging materials, and eliminating polystyrene. There is still more to do, but 82% of our packaging comes from renewable resources.
The research also points to consumers feeling positively towards the use of a logo such as Recycle. We’ve found that our customers like external certification such as Rainforest Alliance, and we’re very proud of our partnership with them.
Rebecca Fay, marketing director, The Carbon Neutral Company
We have clients that are product manufacturers who feel that if they have a clear label indicating what they are doing about their carbon emissions, it helps customers make a choice with something credible and easy to understand. The research refers to the Recycle logo, but use of this is rapidly going to become a given, and will probably become obsolete over time because consumers will come to expect it. Consumers want to understand what a business is doing to take responsibility for its environmental impact.
This survey highlights just how confused consumers are. On the one hand they are saying that they think a Recycle logo will enhance a company’s green credentials, but on the other hand they are saying they wouldn’t necessarily assume they could recycle packaging that bears the logo.
With most of our clients there is a feeling that if they can make a statement about being carbon neutral, it enhances their brand and business. We have several clients who would say that having Carbon Neutral certification has increased sales and revenue. For example, the Radio Taxis Group attributes its Carbon Neutral certification as a significant factor in winning new business worth £1.2m.
The research refers to consumers still choosing on price, and I understand that a consumer might not buy a “green” washing-up liquid because it costs more than the supermarket own-brand, but the sort of clients we have are not in that situation. Their customers want their product or service anyway and have an increasing expectation that they are getting it from a company that has a strong environmental plan. A big driver for our clients coming to us from the business-to-business market is that when they are tendering for business, their customers like to have some kind of environmental statement.
We have some clients who are willing to absorb the price because they feel it is important to differentiate themselves in the future. But the only way this is going to work in the long term is if carbon neutral or sustainable products aren’t more expensive, or seen as a luxury choice for middle-class people. It’s got to become more mainstream.