A study, involving Edelman and nine major brands, found that despite corporate doubts, sustainable products are growing twice as fast as usual, appealing to all demographics. Brands must ensure that product quality is not compromised while promoting sustainability. Combining sustainability claims with core brand attributes can broaden consumer appeal. Effective sustainability messages prioritize personal and community benefits, while technical or scientific claims are less compelling unless tied to consumer benefits. Sustainable merchandise is growing steadily across demographics, indicating that compelling sustainability claims can boost customer engagement and business growth.
In these polarized times, corporate leaders are increasingly reluctant about promoting sustainability in their products. However our research actual consumer purchases show that sustainable products are growing twice as fast as usual, at a 28% premium on average, in most demographics.
To help brand managers and marketing leaders capitalize on this growing market, we partnered with Edelman and nine leading brands in various industries (tech, apparel, beverage, food) to research which sustainability messages are most effective with consumers. Contrary to the current hyperbole about polarized consumers, we find that more innovative sustainability claims are more persuasive for all demographics — old/young, blue state/red state, high income/low income, male/female, etc.
We conducted a custom online study of a sample of the general US population in late 2022/early 2023 for nine iconic brands. Respondents were asked for each brand to evaluate 30-35 different claims (including a combination of category and environmental sustainability claims) to measure their overall appeal. Instead of using a traditional rating scale, we use a user-friendly and robust analytical approach called MaxDiff. This forces a high and low choice from a short list of claims in each choice set, which simplifies the answering task, and provides better discrimination of the answers to the questions. – claim. Each respondent evaluated multiple choice sets, which allowed claims to be randomized based on the experimental design. MaxDiff results provide an appeal score for each claim – both in the aggregate and in the main sub-groups of interest. Most importantly, we added a TURF feature to determine the best combination of claims to maximize overall appeal.
Following are the insights and lessons learned.
The main claims in the category are the most important — the product must work, taste good, clean properly, etc. It makes sense. Who wants sustainable chocolate that tastes bad or a sustainable cleaning product that doesn’t clean? However, sometimes, marketing materials only focus on sustainability which can limit a brand’s potential.
Compelling sustainability claims anchored in the brand’s core attributes greatly expand the brand’s reach by bringing in new consumers. As seen in Figure 1, the main virtue claim can be heard by 44 out of every 100 people (average of the nine brands tested), but if you add the compelling sustainability claims you can increase customer appeal to 74 out of every 100 people. An example of a high-performing, laddered claim is: “Formulated with sustainable ingredients that are good for your skin.”
High-resonance sustainability claims focus on what’s in it for the consumer, starting with themselves and their families and then moving on to their communities. For example:
- Healthy for you and your family: “Grown without harmful synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides” for food, and “Formulated without harmful ingredients parabens, phthalates, dyes and aluminum” for skincare
- Saves you money: “Lower energy for lower monthly energy bills,” or “Helps reduce waste and save money.” For non-CPG items, messaging can emphasize durability and access to repair services.
- Protecting our children: “For future generations.“
- Helping local farmers: “Collaborate with local farmers to use regenerative farming practices to help conserve the environment, encourage biodiversity, and improve soil health.” Claims that only talk about regenerative practices without connecting the claims to local farmers are not heard.
- Protects animals: “Not tested on animals.”
- Sustainable sources: “Made from 100% sustainable ingredients/materials.“
Lower performance claims include science-based claims, traceability, packaging-based claims, and certifications. In other words, the consumer is less interested in technical topics than in personal concerns. However, when the consumer care factor is added to science-based claims they perform better (for example, carbon neutral for cleaner air to breathe vs. carbon neutral). Certifications, although not much heard on their own, are important to ensure that the brand protects against greenwashing.
In summary, effective resume marketing, even if it is in a very specific category, has a top 10 set of ingredients that will appeal to all demographics. Marketing leaders can use the following guide to improve messaging (and also review the full report). It must be emphasized that sustainable marketing must be tied to real and effective sustainable sourcing and production methods. To continue:
- Prioritize communication in the interest of your brand first and foremost. Use relevant sustainability messaging to strengthen brand positioning.
- Link the claim to the continuation of the reason-for-being category. “100% sustainable farming for a great tasting product.”
- Focus on obtaining the welfare of consumers and their families. Consider sustainability claims that ensure products are safe for human consumption or contact such as “made without chemicals harmful to human health.” Say the claim has an emotional component, especially if it has to do with the long-term health of the planet or their children, such as “good for your children/future generations,” or “good for planet.” As much as possible, give a personal monetary benefit to the claim, such as “longer life,” “less waste,” “lower energy bills.”
- The term sustainable, as it relates to “sustainable sourcing and production” is compelling. and needs no further explanation. For example, “100% sustainably sourced,” “100% sustainably produced.”
- Consumers are concerned about animal welfare. If appropriate, include communication to ensure that no harm is done to animals in product testing, such as “no animal testing” or “cruelty free.”
- For food and personal care categories, if applicablelink farmers’ claims and local sourcing, such as “from local farmers.” Regenerative agriculture claims are compelling, for example, when focused on local farmers and their farms. For example, “Partnering with local farmers to ensure long-term farm health for the future of our food systems.” or “Partnering with local farmers to ensure farms remain climate-resilient, nutrient-dense.”
- Give reasons for care when dealing with the more scientific aspects of sustainability. “Carbon neutral to reduce the impact of climate change” versus “carbon neutral” itself.
- Count the claims in continuity for greater resonancelike, “Used 1 million tons of plastic bottles caught in the ocean.”
- Use certifications to guard against greenwashing, but don’t rely on them as the only point of information. For example, “100% sustainably sourced and certified by the Rainforest Alliance” is better than just putting the label on the pack.
- Deliver the product with fully recyclable packaging. While consumers are generally less responsive to sustainable packaging claims, “made from 100% recycled plastic / cardboard” is the most persuasive.
We are convinced that compelling sustainability claims help businesses grow consumer loyalty and market share. In another research initiative with Circana (which collects consumer purchase data), we analyzed the packaged goods purchases by US consumers on an annual basis since 2019 (when looking we are back in 2014). Reviewing 36 categories per year (several hundred thousand products), we observe a steady conversion of conventional products into sustainable products. For example, in 2019, nine out of 36 categories have more than 20% market share in terms of products sold in sustainability and 14 categories less than 5%. Now 13 categories are over 20% and 9 categories are under 5%.
And, while buying is younger, wealthier, urban, and more educated, we’re actually seeing significant buying across all demographics. Milk and yogurt marketed in sustainability, for example, with more than 60% market share, are purchased by almost every demographic at that rate, including rural areas, high school education or less, seniors and low-income income (despite the estimated 30% premium ).
The sustainable production of goods is beneficial for the planet, for consumers and for business. Corporate leaders can be inspired from this research and invest in authentic and persuasive messaging to attract customers, grow market share and make a positive contribution to society.