While developing alternative sources of energy is a high priority, energy conservation will clearly play an important role in energy policy going forward. What this means is that innovations in energy efficiency may be as important as innovations in energy production. My colleagues from the marketing department, Julie Irwin and Raj Raghunathan, recently completed research that suggests that consumers tend to be somewhat more skeptical in general about products that have more favorable social attributes. For example, they might believe that an appliance, like a flat-screen television, is in some ways lower in quality if it is more energy-efficient.
Q. Could you very briefly explain why consumers are skeptical about the quality of energy-efficient products?
A. Our research suggests that consumers are skeptical about whether products that are sustainable can also be strong, broadly defined. We call this the “sustainability penalty.” People expect tires made from recycled materials to be less durable, for instance, than other tires and more “green” detergent to clean less well. So, we would expect that, in the context of evaluating energy efficient products (e.g., a CFL bulb), consumers will be worried that the products are not strong enough. For instance, an energy efficient bulb may be expected to burn less brightly and gallon-for-gallon, ethanol-based-fuel may be expected to provide less energy. These types of expectations can be powerful enough to bias consumers’ inferences and judgments of how well these products actually perform. Thus, the same light bulb may be perceived to burn less brightly if it is portrayed as energy-efficient even if the bulb actually burns just as strongly as its less efficient counterpart. To be successful, energy-efficient products need to overcome the penalty that consumers levy on them.
Q.The reluctance of consumers to embrace more energy efficient products provides challenges to policymakers as well as marketers. As marketing experts, have you thought about what can be done to better promote more energy efficient products?
A. We have thought of a couple of ways by which marketers and policy makers may be able to overcome the sustainability penalty. As our findings show, sustainability is only a liability in product categories in which consumers seek strength-related attributes, such as cleaning power in the case of detergents, or durability in the case of automobile tires. One way of overcoming the sustainability penalty is to explicitly tout the strength-related attributes (effectiveness, strength, durability, etc.) of the sustainable product. As we found in one of our studies, when a sustainable tire is explicitly presented as “guaranteed strong,” people were as receptive to it as they were to a non-sustainable tire. We also found, in some studies not mentioned in our brief, that consumers want to know that other consumers have chosen the product. Simply making clear that the product is a best seller, either here or in another country such as Canada, can help alleviate fears about it. A third route would be to not highlight the sustainability of the product. Of course, overcoming the sustainability penalty in this way has the disadvantage of not attracting consumers who do want to patronize products that are sustainable.
Q. Are there other important things that you learned from your research that might be useful for others who will be conducting related research in the future?
A. Yes, an important implication concerns the procedure used to elicit consumers’ receptivity towards sustainable products. Specifically, we would not recommend directly asking consumers for their opinions of, and attitudes towards, sustainable products. Consumers appear to be uneasy about admitting their misgivings about sustainable products to others (and perhaps even to themselves). So, we recommend the use of indirect methods to elicit consumers’ receptivity to sustainable products. One approach is to use the projective technique, wherein consumers are asked to predict how other consumers (e.g., the average American) would feel about such products. Another approach would be to observe actual purchase or usage behavior in situations where the consumer feels that his/her actions are not being observed.
Read more about Julie and Raj's studies on the "sustainability penalty."