“The time has come,” wrote psychologist Ernest Dichter, “for a little factual and unemotional clarification.”
Well, if it’s good enough for the father of motivational research, it’s good enough for us. Yet until now, measuring sustainability’s impact on consumers has mostly been short on fact and high on emotion. We want consumers to care about sustainable products and responsible businesses and to demonstrate that when they purchase. But do they? Do they really?
Recently, Northeast River Supplies (NRS), one of the largest paddling and water-sports outfitters in the world, asked Valutus and Triple Gap for some ‘factual and unemotional clarification’ on this very point.
NRS has been a sustainability and social responsibility leader for years but refrained from using that as a selling point. They’d been working hard to reduce and improve packaging, to source sustainable materials, and to do right by stakeholders, planet, and social fabric, but had never shouted out those facts. Even when their retiring founder elected to convert NRS to 100% employee ownership rather than sell to outside investors, they kept it low key. Look, we get it: why boast about simply doing the right things?
Even so, recently the staff – ahem… the owners – at NRS began to wonder what might happen if consumers knew of their values, their commitment to doing the right thing – just because it is right? Would that… could that increase revenues? More importantly, could we learn how much value the market places on brand-level commitment to sustainability vs. product-level initiatives?
Now, we at Valutus have always believed – and have shouted long and loudly – that values create value. Not just value for the planet, nor even for the satisfaction of doing good, but value in actual, countable, spendable money. We’ve known from our previous research over the years that both brand and product-level awareness of sustainable commitment would have an impact on consumer choice. Here was a chance to add a great deal more evidence in a different market segment.
Mimeograph machine. Photo by Joonas Suominen. Source: Wikimedia Commons
First though, we had to collect it. In Dichter’s time such research was done by mailing out hand-typed, mimeographed, and stamped surveys. Fortunately, there are now online services and email databases – and our research made use of both – that allowed us to contact an incredible 220,000 people, receiving some 23,000+ responses.
Partnering with Triple Gap, we polled NRS’s own mailing list and also compared the responses to those of representative US consumers who weren’t NRS customers, to see if there was a systematic difference. This combination gave us reach both deep and wide to test whether communicating a given product or company’s sustainable / responsible nature made people more willing to buy.
We also wanted to learn how price sensitive preference for these attributes might be. Sustainable manufacturing and operations can come at a cost and, though NRS’s pricing is competitive with that of its peers, sometimes doing the right thing might mean doing the more expensive thing. If a price increase were necessary, could sustainability blunt the impact?
Source: Valutus and NRS
To find out, we used our Customers Science™ approach, which differs from traditional research by avoiding questions that may not be answered accurately, such as “would you be more likely to buy a sustainable product?” Instead, we had people choose between real products, with prices, reviews, etc. appended (though with no visible brand markings and little additional verbiage).
We did this in two ways:
- Presenting consumers with a choice between one NRS product (e.g., a life jacket) and its top competitor
- Giving them a choice between identical products in different colors (e.g., commodities such as shirts)
Would adding sustainable qualities to one of the products or companies make a difference? Would more people select that one, all else being equal?
To find out, we added sustainable attributes to an item – such as being made from 100% recycled fabric, being Fair Trade Certified, etc. – in each comparison. Then we again had consumers choose.
Next, we did the whole thing over again – same products, same attributes – but we increased the prices of the recycled, fair-trade, and responsible versions. This enabled us to see the changes in consumers’ price sensitivity.
The results? Outstanding. As it turned out, adding any of these attributes generated a small, but significant, increase in preference. As expected, more traditional attributes such as style and color mattered much more, but when comparisons on those points are relatively equal, sustainability and CSR considerations can tip the balance.
Backpackers at Upper Gospel Lake, Idaho. Photo by N. Wassmuth courtesy NRS
Product Environmental and Fair-Trade Attribute
- When the “100% Recycled” attribute was added, preference for an NRS life jacket – already priced higher than its competitor – rose. Even after a price increase of more than 10%, the recycled life jacket was preferred as much or more than when neither was sustainable. The words “Fair Trade Certified” also lifted preference when there was no price increase and kept that lift even when the price was higher
- A different NRS life jacket saw the number of people choosing it rise significantly when either “100% Recycled” or “Fair Trade Certified” were included. Both also beat their original preference even after 10%+ was added to the price
- An NRS shirt with a lower starting preference score (i.e., its baseline was lower), was selected far more frequently when it was sustainable. Once again, even after an increase in price, the shirt maintained much of its preference gain
Okay, so now we know. When a product self-identifies as responsible or sustainable, people show increased preference for it. But what happens when, rather than the product, the company that makes or sells it is so identified?
That is a far more abstract idea, and we needed to know what the impact would be. So we did another round, but this time we tested what happens when the manufacturer is an environmental or social leader.
Company Social and Environmental Responsibility / Leadership Attributes
When the verbiage was about the company itself, rather than its wares and materials, preference increased again… big time. Below are a few examples:
- One NRS shirt saw a truly significant bump when manufacturer environmental leadership was present, and even a slightly higher one when social responsibility was tested
- A different NRS shirt saw preference rise by double-digits from environmental leadership, and by a slightly higher amount with social leadership included
Wow. When customers know a company and products are more sustainable, that lifts preference enough to make a real difference? This is good news – very good!
Photo courtesy NRS
Where Do We Go from Here?
The question now is, what does all this mean in terms of revenue for an actual real-world company? The apparel market’s overall growth rate is forecast to be just over 5%, well below the preference gain we found. Consider the impact at scale if even a portion of a corporation’s offerings saw results like ours. It could add the low-hanging revenue they would have to work long and hard to achieve otherwise.
In the case of NRS, of course, no massive course-correction is needed, since they already care about doing business the right way. Still, though they’ve already earned their credibility, based on these findings, NRS is doubling down on its long-held philosophy that doing the right thing is doing the smart thing.
“We’ve always believed in the importance of doing business the right way,” noted NRS Marketing Director Mark Deming, “but it was still powerful to see that benefit quantified in sales-and-dollar terms. Working with Valutus, and using their Customers Science research method and InVEST financial valuation model, we were able to demonstrate the business benefit of values-based actions in a way that was both credible and actionable.”
Their task now is to build on what they are already doing and to communicate effectively with distributors and consumers, something that can be done with very achievable marketing changes.
“We’re using the results to shape marketing, product development, and strategic decisions,” Deming continued, “in order to build on our existing environmental and social commitments and get even more value from them.”
Kayaking in Vác, Hungary. Photo by Tamara Bitter / Unsplash
For other companies, capturing the benefits we uncovered may involve truly leaning into sustainability to allow values to bring them value. But how much value? Will the results be worth the investment? The answer appears to be yes – the benefits will be much, much more than worth it.
As NRS’ Deming explained above, we ran scenarios using the Valutus InVEST™ model (Interactive Valuation of Environmental & Social Transformation) and found that the effect of people seeing a company’s values had a significant bottom-line impact. Doing good, we found, does indeed lead to doing well, so long as people know about it.
As Dichter once aptly noted, the time has indeed come. We now have “a little factual and unemotional clarification,” on the value of values.
(The Value of Values…catchy. Might make a great book title! 🙂 Keep an eye out for The Value of Values, coming soon.)
Note: NRS presented on this work as part of a panel on Consumer Preferences and Behaviors, in San Diego on Monday, October 18th as part of the 2021 Sustainable Brands conference.