Survey: Consumers Skeptical of Social Claims

BBMG finds that environmental benefits are important, but buyers are wary

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Interest in green products is holding despite the recession—even though consumers are more wary of environmental claims than ever. According to the newly released BBMG Conscious Consumer Report, a majority of consumers believe it's important to buy products with social and environmental benefits, and they're willing to pay more for those products. However, 23% of consumers say they have "no way of knowing" if a product does what it claims.

"We assumed that interest in green benefits would generally be growing, so we were surprised at the green trust gap, the idea that interest is strong but so is skepticism," says Raphael Bemporad, co-founder of BBMG, the branding and integrated-marketing company behind "Conscious Consumer Report: Redefining Value in a New Economy."

The results of the study are based on in-depth interviews conducted on the East and West coasts as well as a poll of 2,000 people across the country last fall.

Mr. Bemporad says the survey findings should serve as a wake-up call to marketers, which need to better communicate with consumers and be more transparent.

"Brands have seen consumers as an audience to market to. We believe it's a moment to rethink that," he says. "With such chaos and a feeling of anxiety in the market, it's a huge opportunity for brands to take a new position of leadership and see consumers as partners. [Companies should] leverage consumers to create and become ambassadors of the brand."

One recommendation for marketers, Mr. Bemporad says, is to get consumers involved in creating products. In return, those consumers will promote the products to people they know, capitalizing on consumers' penchant for trusting each other, he says. According to the survey, 29% of shoppers say they rely on consumer reports to determine if a product does what it claims and 15% say they rely on friends, family and co-workers.

On the flip side, consumers are also quick to punish brands. More than a quarter of consumers avoid buying products from companies whose political and social positions they disagree with, while 17% have told others to stop buying products from those companies.

Even a variety of certification seals failed to resonate with consumers, the study found. Of the 13 certification seals shown to the study's participants, a majority was only familiar with three: Energy Star, Recyclable and USDA Organic. Seals such as Smart Choices, Fair Trade Certified and LEED certified were familiar to far fewer shoppers.

Consumers were also relatively unaware when it came to companies' overall green efforts. Unaided, 41% of consumers could not name a single company that they considered the most socially and environmentally responsible. Many of the companies on the most responsible list also found their way on to the least responsible list -- interestingly, Walmart topped both lists -- illustrating the need for improved communications and increased transparency.

While overall education is key, marketers must also realize that consumers' priorities are shifting due to the recession. Price tops the list of desirable product attributes, with quality coming in as a close second. Good for your health, made in the USA and energy efficiency round out the top five attributes.

Consumers are also increasingly looking for products that are hormone- or pesticide-free, locally grown and all natural. Mr. Bemporad suggests marketers would be wise to focus on these attributes, as opposed to things such as carbon neutrality. While a number of brands, ranging from Tropicana to Timberland, have assessed their carbon footprints, Mr. Bemporad says, "Things that are more amorphous -- like carbon offsets -- will have trouble in this economy, competing with more personal benefits.

"In this tough economy, conscious consumers are making trade-offs," he says. "The things that they're prioritizing when it comes to green-oriented products are the things that go in, on or around their body: food, beauty and cleaning."

Highlights of the BBMG Conscious Consumer Report

Even in Tough Economic Times

  • 67% agree it's important to buy products with social and environmental benefits.
  • 51% say they're willing to pay more for products with social and environmental benefits.

Consumer Priorities

  • 66% Price
  • 64% Quality
  • 55% Good for your health
  • 49% Made in the USA
  • 47% Energy efficiency

Consumer Behaviors

  • 22% always use stainless steel, aluminum or reusable drinking bottles.
  • 18% always check the list of ingredients in personal-care and beauty products before purchasing.
  • 12% always buy environmentally friendly cleaning products.

Consumer Influence

  • 28% avoid buying products from companies whose practices they disagree with.
  • 17% have told others to stop buying products from companies whose practices they disagree with.
  • 16% encourage others to buy from companies that are socially and environmentally responsible.
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