Where sustainability and consumer psychology meet
By Lynn Kahle
University of Oregon
Sustainability and consumer psychology are tightly intertwined. What, how and why consumers want products depends very much on their motives and desires, and consumer psychologists can, to some extent, influence such thinking in favor of more sustainable choices.
One idea of how to reach consumers is to place social values at the center of consumer decision making. In means-end chain theory — the logic of wanting a product (means) to fulfill a value (end) — should apply.
Consumers want products that have certain attributes. When you ask a consumer why he or she bought a product, the answer usually involves a product attribute. For example, a consumer may buy a brand of toothpaste because it has fluoride. If you follow up with a question about why that attribute is important, the consumer will usually respond by citing a consequence of that attribute. For example, that toothpaste with fluoride can fight cavities. If you continue to ask the consumer questions about why the consequence was important, the response usually links to some core value the consumer holds. For example, fighting cavities is important because you need to have good health to accomplish what you want in life.
If marketers can somehow link a product to a core value that a particular consumer holds, that product will be more attractive than one that merely has a useful attribute. Consumers respond more favorably if they see a core value they hold dear involved with a product.
Consider the case of marketing solar energy. Some of the reasons that someone might want to install a residential solar energy system include less carbon emissions, greater safety, less dependence on foreign sources, widely available, individual control, participation in a movement, and incentives. Some of the core values to which these attributes might link include self-respect, sense of accomplishment, security, being well respected, and warm relationships with others.
Lynn Kahle is the Ehrman Giustina Professor of Marketing and head of the marketing department at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. He is hosting the national Advertising and Consumer Psychology Conference at the University of Oregon May 6-7. This year’s theme is environmental sustainability. Kahle is also affiliated with the Center for Sustainable Business Practices.
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