Shh! Don’t Tell the Customers that Their Solar Panels Will Save Them Money
Skip to content
The Insightful Leader Live: What to Know about Today’s AI—and Tomorrow’s | Register Now
Marketing Social Impact May 9, 2016

Shh! Don’t Tell the Customers that Their Solar Panels Will Save Them Money

Green marketers should stick to a single message. But which one?

A customer weighs the environmental benefit of a green product.

Based on the research of

Kelly Goldsmith

George E. Newman

Ravi Dhar

Slogans akin to “Save money while you save the planet!” and “Save green while you go green!” reveal a telling assumption: consumers are more likely to buy environmentally friendly products if the deal is sweetened with cost savings.

But is that assumption true? Recent research from the Kellogg School suggests that, when it comes to selling sustainable products, less is more. It’s better to pick one marketing strategy—be it touting a product’s economic benefits or its environmental benefits—and match that message to the mindset of the consumers you are targeting. Meaning, if your customer is likely focused on saving the world, then talk up your product’s eco-friendly aspects. Or if your customers are a thrifty bunch, then play up your product’s cost-savings.

“If you want to sell green products, it’s not just about understanding how consumers are thinking. It’s about finding that match,” says Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. “If I’m thinking big picture, and my big-picture perspective is that I’m a green person who helps the environment, telling me your green product saves me money kind of taints that. It’s not about the mindset or the message; it’s about the interaction between the two.”

Which to Stress: Benefiting the Environment or Saving Money

Goldsmith became interested in green marketing a few years ago after talking with a friend whose company sold solar panels.

“This firm wasn’t quite sure which benefits of solar panels it should stress in its advertising, so it tried to split the difference by saying, ‘Solar panels save you money and they’re good for the environment.’ Well, Marketing 101 is that you don’t offer two brand claims,” she says. “People don’t think that any given product can be good at a bunch of things; they think it can be good at one thing—if you’re lucky.”

An influential theory in social psychology holds that there are times when consumers are more likely to focus on a product’s immediate, concrete, lower-level benefits (“this product will save me money”) and other times when they will consider the product in terms of its long-term, abstract, higher-level benefits (“this product will help the environment”).

This has implications for companies. If a consumer is thinking of a product in an abstract way, but the product is marketed in a concrete way (or vice versa), then, Goldsmith says, the consumer experiences something called “meta-cognitive difficulty.”

“Consumers generally indicate that they ‘like’ the idea of green products—but then they often don’t buy them.”

“There’s a discord between the benefits I’m thinking about and the benefits that you’re highlighting, which makes it feel difficult for me to think about the product” and thus less likely to purchase it, she explains. The flip side of this is that if you can get your marketing to align with your customers’ mindset, “it’s like a booster shot,” Goldsmith says. “It makes them like the product more.”

Goldsmith wondered how the phenomenon might play out in the context of green marketing.

“If I’m shopping for something I’m going to use right away, I’m going to consider the product more concretely. Therefore, for something like a lightbulb or a household cleaner, it will be more persuasive to emphasize nitty-gritty, lower-level benefits, like saving money,” Goldsmith predicted. “Whereas people are thinking more abstractly and long-term when they shop for products they will use in the distant future, like solar panels, so emphasizing higher-level benefits, such as environmental benefits, should make the product more attractive.”

She and two colleagues, George E. Newman and Ravi Dhar of the Yale School of Management, decided to test these assumptions in a series of experiments.

When Cognition Gets Tricky

The researchers first confirmed that people indeed experience meta-cognitive difficulty when their mindset is misaligned with the benefits that are being advertised.

In one experiment, 170 participants were recruited online and asked to write either about their life “one year from now” (to prompt them to think abstractly) or their life “tomorrow” (to prompt them to think more concretely).

Next, they read one of two fictional advertisements for a line of environmentally friendly household cleaners. Some participants read an advertisement that highlighted the products’ environmental benefits, while others read an advertisement that emphasized the products’ cost savings. Participants then answered questions designed to measure meta-cognitive difficulty, such as indicating how difficult it was to evaluate the products.

As expected, the researchers found that mindset mattered. Participants who had been prompted to think abstractly experienced more meta-cognitive difficulty when they saw an ad that highlighted the cleansers’ concrete economic benefits. And those who had been prompted to think concretely experienced more difficulty with the ad touting the more abstract environmental benefits.

Green Marketing Strategies

Next the researchers explored whether an increase in meta-cognitive difficulty actually translates to a decrease in people’s interest in purchasing a sustainable product.

Participants who had adopted concrete versus abstract mindsets were asked to indicate how likely they would be to use the advertised products. Sure enough, those who had been prompted to think abstractly were more likely to indicate that they would purchase the household cleaners—and in other experiments, compact fluorescent light bulbs and solar panels—when the environmental benefits were highlighted.

In another experiment, participants could choose between receiving $1.25 or an environmentally friendly, reusable water bottle. Participants who were thinking abstractly were significantly more likely to choose the water bottle over the cash when the bottle’s environmental benefits were stressed.

But what about those who had been prompted to think concretely?

Interestingly, across experiments, their willingness to purchase the products did not seem to hinge as strongly on whether the economic versus environmental benefits were highlighted. In fact, the connection between a concrete mindset and interest in a product’s more concrete, economic benefits only reached statistical significance when the results across the experiments were combined into a meta-analysis.

What does Goldsmith make of this distinction? “It’s hard to explain!” she says.

“My perspective is that although meta-cognitive difficulty generally decreases consumers’ interest, we might be picking up on something different here, specifically because we are testing for these effects in the context of sustainable products. When thinking about sustainable products, consumers may expect some kind of environmental benefit, even if their mindset is such that environmental benefits are not particularly attractive.”

But to Goldsmith, the takeaway is clear enough: marketers of green products would do well to stick to a single message—one that matches their customers’ mindset.

“There has been a lot of confusion among brands, marketers, and firms because consumers generally indicate that they ‘like’ the idea of green products—but then they often don’t buy them. We offer some findings that speak to that.”

Featured Faculty

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

About the Writer
Anne Ford is a writer in Evanston, Illinois.
About the Research

Goldsmith, Kelly, George Newman, and Ravi Dhar. In press. “Mental Representation Changes the Evaluation of Green Product Benefits.” Nature Climate Change.

Read the original

Most Popular This Week
  1. Understanding the Pandemic’s Lasting Impact on Real Estate
    Work-from-home has stuck around. What does this mean for residential and commercial real-estate markets?
    realtor showing converted office building to family
  2. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  3. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  4. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  7. For Students with Disabilities, Discrimination Starts Before They Even Enter School
    Public-school principals are less welcoming to prospective families with disabled children—particularly when they’re Black.
    child in wheelchair facing padlocked school doors
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. Leaders, Don’t Be Afraid to Admit Your Flaws
    We prefer to work for people who can make themselves vulnerable, a new study finds. But there are limits.
    person removes mask to show less happy face
  10. Got a Niche Product to Sell? Augmented Reality Might Help.
    Letting customers “try out” products virtually can give customers the confidence to take the plunge.
    person testing virtual reality app on phone
  11. Take 5: How to Improve the Odds of Breakthrough Innovation
    Thorny problems demand novel solutions. Here’s what it takes to move beyond incremental tweaks.
    New invention sits on a shelf unused.
  12. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  13. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  14. How Peer Pressure Can Lead Teens to Underachieve—Even in Schools Where It’s “Cool to Be Smart”
    New research offers lessons for administrators hoping to improve student performance.
    Eager student raises hand while other student hesitates.
  15. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  16. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  17. Executive Presence Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All. Here’s How to Develop Yours.
    A professor and executive coach unpacks this seemingly elusive trait.
    woman standing confidently
  18. Take 5: How Fear Influences Our Decisions
    Our anxieties about the future can have surprising implications for our health, our family lives, and our careers.
    A CEO's risk aversion encourages underperformance.
More in Marketing