BMBW Forum: Sustainability and Climate Concerns

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The first of four forums hosted by the Better Marketing for a Better World Initiative, in conjunction with the Wheeler Institute, featured four articles from the Journal of Marketing Special Issue addressing sustainability and climate concerns. The authors discussed the inspiration for their research, the implications of their findings for practice, and ideas for future research.

Engaging influencers in social media marketing is key to driving initial product adoption

In the first study, titled “Social Media, Influencers, and Adoption of Eco-Friendly Product: Field Experiment Evidence from Rural China”, authors Wanqing Zhang (The Business School (formerly Cass), University of London), Pradeep Chintagunta (The University of Chicago, Booth School of Business), and Manohar Kalwani (Krannert School of Management, Purdue University) analysed the barriers to adoption for new pesticide products in rural China, and tested the role of social media platforms and influencers in driving new product adoption. Pesticides aim to increase crop yields and improve production; however, many have been found to be inefficient and potentially carcinogenic. New technology utilizes an inorganic solvent to lessen chemical residue pollution and improve efficiency, changing the way that pesticides are understood. Despite technological improvements, the authors found that farmers were wary to implement this for three reasons:

  1. Suspicious of new products in the market that they are not familiar with;
  2. Circumstantial sensitivities, meaning that farmers are unsure which pesticide is best fit for their purpose; and / or   
  3. Unsure how to get maximum benefit or efficacy out of the product.

Chintagunta stated that marketers have a responsibility to ensure that users of new technology get access to it in an informed manner. To drive adoption, the team designed a low cost social media platform to understand if they could alleviate the uncertainty associated with product adoption and tested for three conditions:

  1. Using the social media platform to generate interaction between farmers, encouraging them to share their thoughts and experiences with the pesticide;
  2. Using the platform as above, but engaging eminent village personalities to act as influencers. These people were well-known and respected within their villages, but had no expertise with the product itself; and
  3. A traditional marketing approach by the company, in which there was no additional social media platform.

In all scenarios, farmers were also provided with a free sample and adoption was measured at the collective village, not individual, level.

The authors found that social media does a good job of increasing adoption, even without an influencer present. The baseline condition (no social media) resulted in a 29% adoption rate compared to 46% for the condition with social media, or 59% for the condition with influencers on the platform. Influencers were found to be integral in assisting farmers to overcome the first barrier – uncertainty. Despite lacking technical knowledge, influencers in each case were well-respected in their communities and were able to allay the skepticism many farmers had at the top of the purchase funnel. Interestingly, the study found that once farmers have tried the product, the influencer becomes less influential, and experiential knowledge becomes more important.

These findings imply that if you want to create scalable growth, social media platforms are an efficient, low-cost way to do this. Marketers should analyse the purchase funnel for the product and understand where the bottleneck to adoption is occurring. In this case, this was overcome by non-expert influencers vouching for authenticity of the product; in other cases, where the bottleneck is informational or educational, the expertise of the influencer may become more important. In instances where the bottleneck is the top of the funnel, using influencers is a proven method to drive early trust and adoption, although more research is required to understand the limits of non-expert influencers, particularly for products where it is more difficult to share information between users.   

Emphasizing the durability of luxury goods can encourage customers towards more sustainable consumption

The second study, “Buy Less, Buy Luxury: Understanding and Overcoming Product Durability Neglect for Sustainable Consumption,” authored by Jennifer Sun (Columbia University), Silvia Bellezza (Columbia University), and Neeru Paharia (Georgetown University) proposed that luxury goods possess a unique sustainable trait compared to lower-end products, and overcoming durability neglect is integral to driving more sustainable consumption.

Fast fashion retailers are heavy polluters, creating products with a short lifecycle that are intended to be discarded frequently. Unfortunately, consumers prefer to consume unsustainably, choosing to allocate the same budget on multiple lower-end purchases instead of on fewer, higher-end products. The authors posit that this is due to durability neglect, and that helping consumers overcome such neglect by emphasizing the physical durability and stylistic relevance of luxury products over time can encourage more sustainable consumption. Doing so not only demonstrates the longer lifecycle of higher-end goods but also suggests how  sustainability may align with luxury positioning.

In the first component of this study, the authors analysed online secondary retail markets. They found a higher prevalence of luxury products listed for sale on these secondhand markets than ordinary goods, supporting the premise that luxury goods are more sustainable due to longer lifespans. In another component of the study, the authors found that when product durability was made salient in advertisements, consumers were likely to choose one high-end sweater over multiple lower-end ones and think more about durability in their decision-making. Consumers neglected product durability unless it was made salient to them, posing the question: do consumers value durability? If so, how much? How much when compared to other key considerations (such as price, style), etc.?

When explicitly asked in a conjoint study, consumers identified durability as an important factor, second only to style and as important as price. The study showed that an increase of 5 years to 10 years in product durability equated to an additional $296 in the value of the product; 10 years to 15 years generated an additional $77 value. We see that emphasizing durability can nudge consumers towards consumption of fewer, high end products and strengthen links to sustainability.

Campaigns and promotions that educate consumers on the benefits of durability – both physical sturdiness and timeless style – can lead to better world outcomes such as driving purchases of longer-lasting products, extending lifecycles of goods through resale, and ultimately leading to reduction in waste production. Marketers can take advantage of the growing interest in durability by making their claims more concrete: for instance, Patagonia has a section of their website dedicated to educating consumers on buying better, buying less.

Durability is also a vital element in the emerging sharing economy, with firms like Rent The Runway dramatically impacting how consumers interact with higher-end clothing and accessories. An area for further consideration is how brands can create synergies within the sharing economy to encourage sustainability.

Designing practice-based interventions and distributing responsibility is key to reducing resistance to sustainability interventions

The third study, “Understanding Consumer Resistance to Sustainability Interventions” authored by Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos (University of Queensland), Alison M. Joubert (University of Queensland), Daiane Scaraboto (University of Melbourne), Rodrigo Guesalaga (Universidad Finis Terrae), and Jörgen Sandberg (University of Queensland) – focused on consumer reactions to plastic bag restrictions in Chile, concluding that negative reactions to the ban arose from increased consumer responsibility and caused unsettling emotions for shoppers due to this practice change.  

By 2018, 127 countries globally had adopted restrictions on plastic bags. Despite surveys in Chile indicating that 95% of people supported a ban on plastic bags, when rolled out, shoppers were angry and frustrated, and did not want to pay for something that was originally free. Reactions ranged from venting on social media, to stealing plastic bags or in extreme cases, assault of store employees. The study asked: why were people so resistant to this minor change?

Gonzalez-Arcos et al. stated that they found that the problem was larger than just the loss of a plastic bag – people were losing something more, needing to change their habits and reconfigure their lives around this lost material. Social practices, such as shopping, can be broken into 3 components: materials – such as the carts, bags utilized in shopping; skills – like lifting or loading groceries; and meaning – what people attribute to the practice e.g., convenience, pleasure. The ban essentially eliminated one component (the material) and changed how shoppers viewed the other two (skills and meanings), and even affected related, indirect activities – like packaging and garbage disposal. Consumers needed to accommodate new materials, such as reusable bags of different sizes and weights, and stabilize their new shopping practices. Consumers also found that they were bearing the brunt of the practice intervention, experiencing exasperation or shame when they forgot to bring bags to the store – and began to see other habits involving the use of the plastics as potentially problematic. By analysing this practice change, we can learn how consumer resistance can be minimised in other contexts and what the key success factors are for sustainability interventions. We wanted to understand the nature of resistance but also how we could utilize this to positively impact better world outcomes practically, and found:

  1. Designing practice-based interventions could reduce resistance. Policy-makers need to first understand how a practice may be impacted – is it the materials, skills or meaning of the practice that is affected?
  2. Second, they need to understand how best to distribute responsibilities between consumers, retailers and governments, as well as give  a role to those in charge of communicating the change.
  3. Third, determine the landscape of potential reactions to the ban – there are many, both negative and positive, and planning adequately for a range of reactions can help us reduce the negative and leverage the positive reactions.
  4. Lastly, marketers need to identify linked practices that can be affected.

Once these considerations have been made, and the intervention has been implemented, if consumers show signs of resistance policy makers should help customers to refocus their sense of tension elsewhere through education. Encouraging accommodation of the change is equally important – practice change takes time – and if consumers question the intention of others, marketers can assist them to find alternatives and accelerate stabilization of the new practice. Some ideas to do so are by demonstrating commitment of others to the cause, supporting mastery of new practices with gamification, and reminding consumers of the change through clear and consistent communication, before and after implementation.

Emphasizing the aesthetic flaw of unattractive produce by labelling it ‘ugly’ has a positive effect on choice and purchase of unattractive produce, thereby reducing food waste

The fourth and final study in the series, titled “From Waste to Taste: How “Ugly” Labels Can Increase Purchase of Unattractive Produce”, authored by Siddhanth (Sid) Mookerjee (UBC Sauder Business School), Yann Cornil (UBC Sauder Business School), and JoAndrea Hoegg (UBC Sauder Business School) – focused on the $15.4B of edible, safe yet unattractive fresh produce that is unnecessarily discarded every year, and sought to understand if ‘ugly labelling’ could reduce the massive environmental and societal costs of discarding this produce. Inspired by an Intermache campaign from 2014, the authors found that emphasizing the flaw of the food – its ugliness – corresponded with an increase in the sale of the product.

Consumers reject unattractive produce because they judge appearance as the basis for other produce attributes, driving negative expectations of the tastiness of unattractive produce, and to a smaller extent, the healthiness. ‘Ugly labelling’ emphasises that the source of the rejection is cosmetic: it forces consumers to realise that the reason they rejected produce was solely aesthetic, and it acts as a correction mechanism on the negative tastiness expectations. The authors studied the efficacy of ‘ugly labelling’ through a field study in which either “ugly” labels or no specific labels (control) were placed on unattractive produce, and the labels were switched hourly. They found that when unattractive produce was labelled ugly, consumers were not only more likely to purchase it, but they also spent more money on it.

Having demonstrated the efficacy of “ugly” labelling in a real-world context, the team next investigated the reason for the success of “ugly” labelling. The authors found that initially, participants expected unattractive produce to be less tasty, but that ‘ugly labelling’ corrects for these negative expectations, and leads to increased choice of unattractive over attractive produce. The authors also surveyed grocery owners and managers to understand if they believed in the efficacy of these labels. From a group of 52 people with an average of ~12 years’ experience, 46% preferred not to label unattractive produce as a means of promotion, 33% preferred a more understated approach, such as using phrases like ‘imperfect’ and only 4% chose to use the word ‘ugly’ in their labelling. By using Facebook advertising on real users, the authors showed that of the 3 ads that used either ‘ugly’, ‘imperfect’ or ‘with personality’ to advertise unattractive produce, ‘ugly’ was the most effective of the three conditions in generating clicks. In another study, they found that compared with other labels, ‘ugly’ labels were more likely to correct for negative taste expectations.

Increased purchasing of unattractive produce can drastically reduce food waste, and has major implications for better world outcomes and marketing. From a theoretical perspective, this research also shows that negative information can have a positive impact on choice. ‘Ugly labelling is low-cost, easy to implement and can be used by a variety of actors (e.g. farmers, large retailers) to promote unattractive produce. Moreover, ‘ugly labelling’ works best in tandem with a moderate, rather than large, price discount, reducing the need to excessively discount unattractive produce, and making for a more sustainable campaign overall. Further research is required into understanding which other labels – besides ugly – could help sell unattractive produce; and what other interventions (e.g. education campaigns) could be used alongside ‘ugly labelling’ to influence choice of unattractive produce.

Further detail on each study:


The Better Marketing for a Better World (BMBW) initiative has been established as a collaboration between Professor Rajesh Chandy, Professor Gita Johar from Columbia Business School, Professor Christine Moorman from Fuqua School of Business and Professor John Roberts, Professor at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.  The aim of the BMBW initiative is to build community and support the development and dissemination of knowledge on how marketing can improve lives, sustain livelihoods, strengthen societies and benefit the world at large. There is natural synergy with the aspirations of BMBW and the Wheeler Institute, and therefore under the guidance of Rajesh Chandy the Wheeler Institute has taken a significant role in supporting the launch of the BMBW initiative (bmbw.org). Going forward members of the Wheeler Institute team will undertake a secretariat role in support of the BMBW initiative developing its operational frameworks related to organising forums, facilitating training, and maintaining online resources.

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