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.”