Earlier in 2011, when publishing its new “Green Claims Guidance”, DEFRA also published a report focusing on how consumers understood phrases such as “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable”. Anna Williams picks up on some of the principal points coming out of the consumer research.
Who: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs ("DEFRA")
When: February 2011
Law stated as at: 5 October 2011
Earlier this year, DEFRA published a research report compiled on its behalf by Brook Lyndhurst Ltd and Icaro Consulting Limited. The aim of the research was to ascertain the understanding individual consumers had of "green claims" and how they responded to them when they were used on product packaging, in broadcast, print and online media and as part of other promotional materials. The research comprised of a two week literature review on this topic, the organisation of 15 discussion groups in 2009 and an online survey of 2,019 adults in 2010 which used a sample of respondents designed to be reflective of national characteristics. The online survey was designed to explore respondents’ responses to individual, isolated terms against a range of criteria including how familiar they were with the terms used, how meaningful they were, and the extent to which they would be used to inform purchasing decisions. The research also explored the hypothesis that consumers may find a green term meaningful even if they do not fully understand the concepts it describes, and that finding it meaningful may be sufficient for them to absorb a claim and potentially act upon it.
The research identified the following types of green terms that can be used in a marketing context:
- "inferential terms" – those that imply or infer any association with the environment through the context within which the term is used (e.g. "clean", "natural");
- "flag terms" – green terms which are explicitly linked to environmental issues but only in as much as they ‘flag’ a product or claim as broadly relating to the environment (e.g. "green" or "environmentally-friendly"); and
- "specific terms" – those that invoke a particular environmental issue, such as climate change, or a particular environmental action, such as recycling.
In this article we take a look at some of the key findings highlighted within the research report and consider their impact on the use of green claims in a marketing context.
Consumer awareness of green claims
The report suggests that awareness and understanding of green language is evolving rapidly. 74% of respondents to the online survey conducted were either 'very familiar' or 'fairly familiar' with the term ‘carbon footprint’ for instance, and the term ‘energy efficient’ was found to be one of the most meaningful of all the green terms tested (second only to the term ‘recycling’). Terms that have been in use for some time such as ‘recycling’, ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ are also very familiar to consumers while a number of emerging terms, such as ‘zero carbon’ or ‘water footprint’, are relatively new to consumers still. The discussion group exercises conducted suggested consumers' familiarity with green terms comes from a mix of mainstream product marketing and media.
Consumers' reactions to green claims
The report suggested that survey respondents considered the most meaningful green claims made by advertisers to be those with which they were most familiar. Having said that, the research also provided evidence which indicated that for some respondents, their actual understanding of the concepts behind green phrases used by advertisers (including newer emerging terms) was "less than perfect" and therefore the impact of marketing messages used can often be missed. A factor that appeared to influence the way in which participants made sense of emerging green terms was their existing expectations about the sort of environmental impacts that might be associated with a particular product. If a term appeared to infer an impact that was counterintuitive (e.g. carbon emissions being linked to an insurance policy), some participants struggled to make these links. As a result, the researchers suggested the following lessons for marketers using green terms:
1. The need to be aware of terms’ ‘internal dependencies’ – the degree to which understanding one emerging term is dependent upon understanding a related concept (a grasp of carbon offsetting is required to understand the term ‘carbon negative’, for example);
2. The need to ensure that claims referencing multiple environmental issues are as clear as possible about how those impacts relate to one another and their relative importance. There was evidence that some discussion group participants found it difficult to judge the value and importance of claims that linked a product to several different environmental issues; and
3. The need to ensure that messages are consistent and that negative environmental impacts do not appear to be glossed over in the promotion of positive outcomes.
Where campaign small print was concerned, the survey findings suggested that high quality supporting detail that quantifies environmental benefits can improve consumers' trust in green claims and their understanding of the claims used.
How do consumers actually respond to the use of green claims in a marketing context?
The report highlighted research findings which focused on some of the ways in which the participants questioned differentiated between various green terms. For instance:
1. ‘Inferential’ terms (e.g. ‘clean’ or ‘natural’) – these seemed to induce positive responses from discussion group participants and to convey a general sense of environmental benefit, despite the fact that they are not explicitly ‘environmental’ terms;
2. ‘Flag’ terms (e.g. ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’) –when these terms were presented to discussion group participants without any context, participants generally considered them relatively meaningful. When flag terms were tested as part of a claim, responses varied depending on the specific context (for instance few participants found ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ terms meaningful when associated with certain obscure products such as bank accounts. The researchers also found that, irrespective of context, flag terms only ever indicate overall environmental benefit. Moreover, even if a flag term is qualified with supporting information, there is no guarantee that this information will either be read or understood, and so the risk remains that the consumer may be misled into thinking that a product is ‘better for the environment’ than it actually is; or that its net impact on the environment is positive, when in fact improvements are limited to a particular area or issue. The report suggests that this reinforces the need for any supporting information provided to be concise and easily understood by consumers;
3. Comparative terms – participants in the group discussions expressed scepticism about the use of comparative terms and frequently demanded ‘proof’ such claims were true. The report suggests this finding supports DEFRA's position in its green claims guidance note that comparative terms be avoided unless the basis for comparison is made clear, and the claim quantified;
4. Carbon terminology – evidence from the discussion groups suggested consumers are acquiring understanding of carbon terminology gradually but the general level of understanding of carbon terminology between research participants was "patchy"; and
5. Terms that consumers themselves would use – some individuals who participated in the group discussions differentiated between terms that they could relate to and terms that would be used by people who were less like them. The report suggests that participants in the group discussions seemed to identify most closely with terms with which they were familiar (although this was not always the case).
The links made by consumers between green claims and different products
The report suggests that respondents to the online survey tended to find the use of green terms far more intuitive in relation to some products than others. The most "meaningful" term tested in association with cars, for example, was ‘energy efficient’ (more than 80% of survey respondents found this term meaningful) whereas the term "environmentally friendly" was only considered meaningful in association with holidays by 42% of respondents. Overall, responses to claims linking green terms with particular products appeared to demonstrate the impact these associations can have on how meaningful a term is. The terms that were considered most meaningful when linked to products were in general those that were more familiar to participants and describe specific measures or outcomes (such as ‘Renewable energy tariff’, ‘100% recycled bottle’, ‘locally sourced fish’, ‘energy efficient washing machine’ and ‘energy efficient car’).
‘Environmentally friendly’ was considered more meaningful than many of the other terms tested when associated with particular products (most notably, holidays, washing machines and washing powder). It is suggested this was because participants found it useful as a broad indication that a product did have some level of environmental impact and so might be subject to an environmental claim. However, the online survey results suggested that ‘flag’ terms such as ‘green’, ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ were considered slightly less meaningful than ‘environmentally friendly’ when tested in isolation.
Carbon-related terms were considered meaningful by participants in the group discussions when associated with products seen to produce direct emissions through use. Links to carbon terms were less well received for products like holidays or washing machines (where the emissions are produced through electricity generation, rather than direct product use). ‘Low carbon’ tended to score poorly for meaningfulness even on those products that were closely associated with other carbon terms, which the researchers believe may suggest there is something about the phrase when it is used in association with a particular product that is unclear to consumers.
Other general conclusions made in the report included that the research participants did not seem to find links between financial products and the environment or carbon offsetting meaningful. When linked to bank accounts, only two terms were considered meaningful by more than a fifth of respondents and those were the terms ‘ethical’ and ‘socially responsible’ relating to wider social issues rather than the environment.
Why this matters:
It is worth marketers noting how their use of green terms is perceived by the consumers they are directing their marketing campaigns to so that the content of ads can be made as effective as possible for its intended audience. The DEFRA research report proposes that green terms are more effective if they are already familiar to consumers and so they shall understand the message being relayed by the marketer and that if consumers find a particular term meaningful, it is more likely they shall respond positively to it even if they did not fully understand the underlying concepts referred to. Furthermore, consumers look for a degree of qualifying or explanatory detail when green terms are used and this could assist to make the green claims more trustworthy and meaningful where consumers are concerned.
The research report makes interesting reading and can be accessed and read in full here. Caution is suggested in respect of some of the research findings due to the small sample sizes in some cases, but marketing departments may also be interested to note that where 'emerging terms' where examined, there where discrepancies in the research based on the demographics of the consumers questioned. Careful targeting of marketing employing green terms is therefore also important as the report suggested that 'emerging terms' were considered more familiar and meaningful by those who read broadsheet newspapers, lived in southern England, were aged 25-34, and were classified by the DEFRA segmentation model as ‘positive greens’ than any other demographic.