Going green on purpose?
Imagine a company that has developed a new product that is better for the environment. One option is for the company to advertise that the green benefit was intended: It may highlight that it is concerned about the sustainability of its products and as a result, it developed a new product that is better for the environment. Alternatively, the company may communicate that the green benefit was actually an unintended side effect. For example, it may advertise that it was trying to develop a new product that satisfied some other goal and that the environmental benefit was merely a by-product of those efforts. Which of these two approaches will be most effective?
Although common wisdom would say that intending to make a product more environmentally safe should be preferred to unintentionally doing so, the present studies demonstrate the opposite effect: When a company manufactures a product that is better for the environment, consumers are less likely to purchase it if the green benefit is perceived as intended than when the same environmental benefit is perceived as an unintended side effect. In other words, intending to make a “greener” product may actually lead to a decrease in consumer interest.
Why consumers are wary of green product improvements
It turns out that this effect results from consumers’ theories about the relationship between a company’s intentions and its allocation of resources. In short, consumers consider a company’s resources to be zero-sum: Improvement in one field leads to a drawback in another. Therefore, when a company intends to make a product better for the environment, consumers assume that in order to make a product more eco-friendly, the company spent less on actual product quality. In other words, intended enhancements – in contrast to unintended ones – lead consumers to suspect lower product quality, which reduces their purchase interest.
To demonstrate this, we had three different groups evaluate a hypothetical cleaning product. In all cases, the product was described as “significantly better for the environment than competing brands.” For one group of participants, the green improvement was described as intended, while for a second group of participants, the green improvement was described as unintended. In the third group, there was no mention of the company’s intentions. For each product, all participants then answered a series of questions that assessed their perceptions of product quality, their beliefs about resource allocation, and their purchase intent.