Drivers of Preference: Why Consumers Will Buy Green

Huffpo logo Huffpo analyzes the various 'drivers of preference' that lead consumers to purchase environmentally friendly products. The motivator can be many things including health reasons, price, aesthetic, independence. A desire to protect the planet is unlikely to be the 'driver of preference' for most consumers and businesses that are trying to market their green products need to emphasize their differentiators.

Posted Feb. 2, 2010
By Richard Seireeni, The Huffington Post

Seventh Generation may be the market leader in eco-friendly household cleaning products
and is unquestionably dedicated to environmental and social
responsibility, but these are not the main reasons people are buying
their products. For a majority of their most loyal customers, who turn
out to be issue-aware women with children, the primary driver of
consumer choice turns out to be safety. Many women simply want fewer
toxic chemicals in their homes. To draw attention to this USP (unique
selling proposition), Seventh Generation recently launched their "Protecting Planet Home" campaign.

It's often not clear why people buy the things they do. This is
particularly true when it comes to choosing sustainable and/or socially
responsible products. Saving the planet or supporting fair trade is
never the only driver of consumer choice — an insight that becomes
especially clear when choices are made between competing green products.

So, what is a 'driver of preference'?

There may be many product characteristics that influence consumer
choice: special features, performance, design, brand image, price,
availability, etc. However, some of the talking points that are so
highly valued by product makers are often dismissed by customers as
mere table stakes – the qualities needed to simply get in the game.
This is becoming increasingly true for green products. Many of today's
enlightened consumers expect their products to be green. For the
marketer of green products, understanding what product qualities
actually causes a consumer to open his or her wallet requires research
and an open mind. These often-inscrutable qualities that cause someone
to pick this over that are 'drivers of preference'.

In my book, The Gort Cloud,
I studied more than two-dozen sustainable and socially responsible
companies. I took a close look at how these companies built their
brands and expanded public awareness. I discovered an interconnected
network of investors, technical experts, certifying agencies,
suppliers, distributors and a pool of supportive customers who have
helped establish the high-profile green brands we know today — brands
like Seventh Generation and Stonyfield organics. My research also revealed unexpected reasons for consumer choice.

In the case of Southwest Windpower,
the nation's leading maker of small scale and residential wind
turbines, the reason for choosing their products is multi-dimensional.
According to Marty McDonald, the director of Southwest's brand
development firm, egg,
the primary drivers of preference were varied. For many, the prospect
of saving money on their utility bills is prominent. For a small
percentage, the appeals of environmentalism and energy security are
important. A fourth important driver of preference is, to use a Sarah
Palin term, 'going rogue'. According to McDonald, one of the main
reasons people choose wind turbines is to show off their independence
and rebel spirit, and take control of their energy. For certain folks,
the laudable characteristics of efficiency, design, performance and
savings are subordinated by more emotional feelings, like, "Screw the
utility company. I'm in charge." The awareness of these drivers of
preference powered the communications strategy for Southwest
Windpower's products in 2007.

What happens when similar products compete in the same green category?

In this case, understanding drivers of preference and fine-tuning a
product's differentiating characteristics becomes critical. For
example, Seventh Generation enjoys significant marketshare among green household cleaners, but the market is crowded. Competitors include Planet, Ecover, Mrs. Meyer's, Method,
etc. Each is looking to leverage a differentiating characteristic that
is also a driver of preference. Method identified a connection between
trendy, style-conscious, Dwell magazine-reading customers and those who
want to shop green to save the earth and make their indoor environment
less toxic. Method's solution was to package their green cleaning
products in attractive bottles that were pretty enough to leave out on
the counter. According to Marty McDonald, "more and more, people are
coming to purchases with an overall gestalt or ethos that incorporates
various values (including a commitment to the environment). Then, they
assign the primary drivers, like taste, design, etc." So, one important
driver of preference for Method turns out to be the designer package.

As a kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my friends and I spent a lot of time camping. We brought Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap
along and not because it was necessarily good for the earth — although
that was a plus. We brought it because this one product had many uses.
We could wash our hair, wash the camping pots and brush our teeth all
with the same product, thus cutting down on pack weight. For us,
versatility was the quality that tipped us in favor of the good
doctor's edible and non-polluting soap.

My wife, Elaine Kim,
is a fashion designer. She strives to use responsible fabrics and to
manufacture locally, but she also believes that women will not buy
clothing simply because the fabric is sustainably sourced, "It must be
cute and flattering first." This blunt fact is not lost on the folks at
Nau clothing, another clothing company featured in my book.

Each of the companies profiled in The Gort Cloud
were dedicated to social and environmental responsibility, but when it
came to positioning their products, the environmental mission took a
backseat to a more motivating driver of preference. For Tesla Motors,
the key driver of preference is raw power — their roadster will smoke
a Ferrari in a stealthy, silent burst off the line. For Ben & Jerry's, it's the taste of their wild concoctions and the evocative flavor names. For Rent-a-Green Box and for Terracycle plant food, the drivers of preference turn out to be price and performance, which are classic drivers of consumer choice.

Circling back to Seventh Generation,
it turns out that home safety is a driver of consumer preference that
did not go unnoticed by one of their mainstream competitors. Two years
ago, Clorox launched their Green Works line partially in response to growing anxiety about the safety of chlorine in the home.

Many marketers of products and services have been wondering out loud
if green still makes a difference during such trying times. Several
market studies, including those published by the Mintel and Cone
market research groups, have attempted to answer these questions;
however, it should be reassuring to know that green represents only one
part of a product's appeal and is usually not the primary driver of
preference. Green alone is not likely to make a product successful; on
the other hand, not going green can actually be harmful to sales in the
long run. This is why identification of the true drivers of consumer
preference is so critical to overcoming green fatigue and a crowded
green marketplace.

For further reading and a great list of potential drivers for green products and services, read the 2010 Trendwatching brief, "Eco-Bounty".

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