Drivers of Preference: Why Consumers Will Buy Green

Saving the planet or supporting fair trade is never the only driver of consumer choice -- an insight that becomes especially clear when choices are made between competing green products.
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Seventh Generation may be the market leader in eco-friendly household cleaning products and is unquestionably dedicated to environmental and social responsibility, but these are not the main reasons people are buying their products. For a majority of their most loyal customers, who turn out to be issue-aware women with children, the primary driver of consumer choice turns out to be safety. Many women simply want fewer toxic chemicals in their homes. To draw attention to this USP (unique selling proposition), Seventh Generation recently launched their "Protecting Planet Home" campaign.

It's often not clear why people buy the things they do. This is particularly true when it comes to choosing sustainable and/or socially responsible products. Saving the planet or supporting fair trade is never the only driver of consumer choice -- an insight that becomes especially clear when choices are made between competing green products.

So, what is a 'driver of preference'?

There may be many product characteristics that influence consumer choice: special features, performance, design, brand image, price, availability, etc. However, some of the talking points that are so highly valued by product makers are often dismissed by customers as mere table stakes - the qualities needed to simply get in the game. This is becoming increasingly true for green products. Many of today's enlightened consumers expect their products to be green. For the marketer of green products, understanding what product qualities actually causes a consumer to open his or her wallet requires research and an open mind. These often-inscrutable qualities that cause someone to pick this over that are 'drivers of preference'.

In my book, The Gort Cloud, I studied more than two-dozen sustainable and socially responsible companies. I took a close look at how these companies built their brands and expanded public awareness. I discovered an interconnected network of investors, technical experts, certifying agencies, suppliers, distributors and a pool of supportive customers who have helped establish the high-profile green brands we know today -- brands like Seventh Generation and Stonyfield organics. My research also revealed unexpected reasons for consumer choice.

In the case of Southwest Windpower, the nation's leading maker of small scale and residential wind turbines, the reason for choosing their products is multi-dimensional. According to Marty McDonald, the director of Southwest's brand development firm, egg, the primary drivers of preference were varied. For many, the prospect of saving money on their utility bills is prominent. For a small percentage, the appeals of environmentalism and energy security are important. A fourth important driver of preference is, to use a Sarah Palin term, 'going rogue'. According to McDonald, one of the main reasons people choose wind turbines is to show off their independence and rebel spirit, and take control of their energy. For certain folks, the laudable characteristics of efficiency, design, performance and savings are subordinated by more emotional feelings, like, "Screw the utility company. I'm in charge." The awareness of these drivers of preference powered the communications strategy for Southwest Windpower's products in 2007.

What happens when similar products compete in the same green category?

In this case, understanding drivers of preference and fine-tuning a product's differentiating characteristics becomes critical. For example, Seventh Generation enjoys significant marketshare among green household cleaners, but the market is crowded. Competitors include Planet, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer's, Method, etc. Each is looking to leverage a differentiating characteristic that is also a driver of preference. Method identified a connection between trendy, style-conscious, Dwell magazine-reading customers and those who want to shop green to save the earth and make their indoor environment less toxic. Method's solution was to package their green cleaning products in attractive bottles that were pretty enough to leave out on the counter. According to Marty McDonald, "more and more, people are coming to purchases with an overall gestalt or ethos that incorporates various values (including a commitment to the environment). Then, they assign the primary drivers, like taste, design, etc." So, one important driver of preference for Method turns out to be the designer package.

As a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my friends and I spent a lot of time camping. We brought Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap along and not because it was necessarily good for the earth -- although that was a plus. We brought it because this one product had many uses. We could wash our hair, wash the camping pots and brush our teeth all with the same product, thus cutting down on pack weight. For us, versatility was the quality that tipped us in favor of the good doctor's edible and non-polluting soap.

My wife, Elaine Kim, is a fashion designer. She strives to use responsible fabrics and to manufacture locally, but she also believes that women will not buy clothing simply because the fabric is sustainably sourced, "It must be cute and flattering first." This blunt fact is not lost on the folks at Nau clothing, another clothing company featured in my book.

Each of the companies profiled in The Gort Cloud were dedicated to social and environmental responsibility, but when it came to positioning their products, the environmental mission took a backseat to a more motivating driver of preference. For Tesla Motors, the key driver of preference is raw power -- their roadster will smoke a Ferrari in a stealthy, silent burst off the line. For Ben & Jerry's, it's the taste of their wild concoctions and the evocative flavor names. For Rent-a-Green Box and for Terracycle plant food, the drivers of preference turn out to be price and performance, which are classic drivers of consumer choice.

Circling back to Seventh Generation, it turns out that home safety is a driver of consumer preference that did not go unnoticed by one of their mainstream competitors. Two years ago, Clorox launched their Green Works line partially in response to growing anxiety about the safety of chlorine in the home.

Many marketers of products and services have been wondering out loud if green still makes a difference during such trying times. Several market studies, including those published by the Mintel and Cone market research groups, have attempted to answer these questions; however, it should be reassuring to know that green represents only one part of a product's appeal and is usually not the primary driver of preference. Green alone is not likely to make a product successful; on the other hand, not going green can actually be harmful to sales in the long run. This is why identification of the true drivers of consumer preference is so critical to overcoming green fatigue and a crowded green marketplace.

For further reading and a great list of potential drivers for green products and services, read the 2010 Trendwatching brief, "Eco-Bounty".

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