Posted by Linda Casey

January 29, 2014

4 Min Read
Survey: Americans value honesty over perfection in environmental marketing

PR Newswire -- Americans continue to misunderstand phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising, giving products a greater halo than they may deserve. At the same time, most Americans are willing to punish a company for using misleading claims. Of the 71 percent who will stop buying the product if they feel misled by an environmental claim, more than a third (37 percent) will go so far as to boycott the company's products entirely, according to the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker.

The Green Gap Persists
A growing number of Americans (97 percent in 2011, as compared to 90 percent in 2008) believe they know what common environmental marketing claims such as "green" or "environmentally friendly" mean, yet their interpretations are often inaccurate. More than two-in-five Americans (41 percent) erroneously believe these terms mean a product has a positive (i.e., beneficial) impact on the environment. Only 29 percent understand that these terms more accurately describe products with less environmental impact than previous versions or competing products. 

"It's telling that three years after Cone first conducted the Green Gap survey, not much has changed," says Jonathan Yohannan, Cone's senior vice president of corporate responsibility. "Consumers continue to be confused about environmental claims, often without realizing it. This creates a huge risk for consumer backlash. To overcome this gap between environmental messaging and consumer perception, companies need to provide detailed information in-line with the Federal Trade Commission's guidelines in a place where consumers are making purchase decisions."

Consumers Seeking Clarity
A majority of consumers are distrustful of companies' environmental claims (57 percent) and are overwhelmed by the amount of environmental messages in the marketplace (51 percent). Given this confusion, it's understandable that consumers are somewhat wary of general claims alone:
•59 percent say it is only acceptable for marketers to use general environmental claims when they are backed up with additional detail and explanation.
•23 percent say vague environmental claims should never be used.
•79 percent want detailed information readily accessible on product packaging.
•75 percent wish companies would do a better job helping them understand the environmental terms they use.


Consumers are clearly seeking information, but fortunately, they do not expect companies to be saints. A full three-quarters (75 percent) say it is okay if a company is not environmentally perfect - as long as it is honest and transparent about its efforts. 

Consumer Perception and Environmental Reality Not Always Aligned
As corporate marketers and regulators alike evaluate how to communicate environmental commitments and avoid greenwashing, the 2011 Cone Green Gap Trend Tracker tested which of three common marketing approaches was most influential in consumer purchase decisions. Consumers were asked to "purchase" the most environmentally responsible of three generic cleaning products based on an isolated marketing approach - a certification, a vague environmental claim or an environmental image.
•Certification: By far the most influential purchase driver - 51 percent selected the product bearing a mock certification. What's more telling is that more than half of respondents (51 percent) believed the certification meant this product was reviewed and verified by a credible third party.
•Claim: Thirty percent of respondents chose the product with a vague "made with natural ingredients" claim.
•Imagery: Environmental imagery was the least influential purchase driver, yet one-in-five (19 percent) still chose this product without any other indication it was better for the environment. Some even believed the environmental imagery indicated this product is safe for the environment (14 percent).

Deception Breeds Consumer Backlash
Testing the certification, claim or image on-pack indicated each drove consumer perceptions that the products themselves did not necessarily live up to. This disconnect is a significant threat for companies because consumers who feel misled by an environmental claim may punish the brand. They will:
•Stop Buying: 71 percent will stop buying the product; 37 of these will boycott the company's products altogether.
•Do Nothing: Only 11 percent will continue buying the product.


"As Americans continue to consider environmental claims when shopping, companies must be transparent to build trust - or face the consequences," says Yohannan. "Puffery and generic claims alone aren't going to cut it. Companies will be held accountable to ensure the claims are not only accurate, but also aligned with consumer perceptions."



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