Shh! Don’t Tell the Customers that Their Solar Panels Will Save Them Money
Skip to content
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.”

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

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

Kelly Goldsmith

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

Suggested For You

Most Popular


How Are Black – White Bira­cial Peo­ple Per­ceived in Terms of Race?

Under­stand­ing the answer — and why black and white Amer­i­cans’ respons­es may dif­fer — is increas­ing­ly impor­tant in a mul­tira­cial society.


Why Warmth Is the Under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed Skill Lead­ers Need

The case for demon­strat­ing more than just competence.

Most Popular Podcasts


Pod­cast: Our Most Pop­u­lar Advice on Improv­ing Rela­tion­ships with Colleagues

Cowork­ers can make us crazy. Here’s how to han­dle tough situations.

Social Impact

Pod­cast: How You and Your Com­pa­ny Can Lend Exper­tise to a Non­prof­it in Need

Plus: Four ques­tions to con­sid­er before becom­ing a social-impact entrepreneur.


Pod­cast: Attract Rock­star Employ­ees — or Devel­op Your Own

Find­ing and nur­tur­ing high per­form­ers isn’t easy, but it pays off.


Pod­cast: How Music Can Change Our Mood

A Broad­way song­writer and a mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sor dis­cuss the con­nec­tion between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.