Slapping 'Green' on Your Product Makes Shoppers Think It Sucks

Research briefs , a regular series, looks at business-related studies emerging from academia. This week: why some eco-friendly products scare consumers off.

Study: When Going Green Backfires: How Firm Intentions Shape the Evaluation of Socially Beneficial Product Enhancements

Authors:  George E. Newman, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management, Margarita Gorlin, Ph.D. candidate at the Yale School of Management, Ravi Dhar, Professor of Management and Marketing at Yale School of Management

Published: published in the Journal of Consumer Research’s October 2014 issue

Everyone likes doing their bit to help out the environment, right?

Not always: consumers are less likely to buy a “green” product if they believe its benefit to the environment was the result of an intentional change, rather than an added side benefit, new research appearing in the Journal of Consumer Research says.

“If a company intentionally made a product better for the environment, consumers believe the product’s quality must have suffered because the company diverted resources away from product quality,” wrote the study’s authors, George Newman, Margarita Gorlin and Ravi Dhar from the Yale School of Management.

The researchers conducted a series of studies in which they told consumers about a company that makes household cleaning products. In some cases, consumers were told the company meant to make the product more environmentally friendly. In others, consumers were told the product’s eco-friendly aspect was the side effect of another change.

The consumers who were told the company had intended to make its products more green thought the products “suffered from a quality control problem.”

The bottom line: companies should tread carefully when they tweak their products, because consumers may be biased against eco-friendly products that were re-engineered to be more green. Brewing company Anheuser-Busch got the message when it rolled out its new aluminum beer bottles in 2005; it chose to play up the redesign while staying relatively quiet on the environmental benefits of aluminum, the study says.

Of course, if a company (probably not a beer company) is already known for touting its granola image, it’s safe to brag away, the researchers said.

“Companies looking to advertise their fair trade or sustainable production of their donations to charity can advertise those actions without worrying that it will affect perceptions of their products,” they said in the study.

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