Turnoffs, turn-ons and wild expectations

Which green buzzwords irk your customers – and which set expectations you can’t meet?

For those of us who work all day long in the sustainability space, it’s easy to forget that consumers don’t necessarily speak our language. Manufacturers and marketers throw around green jargon like “low-VOC” or “net zero” as if consumers will automatically understand what they mean and that the meaning is good.

Not so.

As I mentioned to you in my last blog post, for our Eco Pulse™ 2015 special report, The Buzz on Buzzwords, we tested a total of eleven environmental buzzwords – eight of which are specific and product-related:

  • Recyclable
  • Recycled
  • Renewable
  • Compostable
  • Biodegradable
  • Low carbon footprint
  • Net zero
  • Low-VOC

We wanted to gauge whether consumers had a firm grasp of what they meant – and even more important, how consumers really felt about them.

Some of these terms seem fairly simple, right? Take “compostable.” Means “able to be composted.” How much room for miscommunication could there possibly be? A lot, it turns out. First, there’s the implication that a product can be composted at home, when often the term refers to products that must be taken to commercial composting facilities. And many cities don’t have those. But consumers love the term, and most think it means “safe for home composting.” (Definite potential there for your brand to fail to live up to expectations, by the way.)

This hints at a pattern we saw throughout our study. The words we tested mostly fell into two camps: 1) words that carried a strong positive connotation but also generated unrealistic expectations; and 2) words that were so poorly understood that they left consumers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Let’s talk about camp number one for a moment. Our testing showed that consumers attach a whole range of expectations to words that relate to a product’s environmental benefits – including assuming a net positive effect on the environment when only a specific attribute is being described. Beware the green halo: you might assume that it’s a good idea to use the buzzwords that consumers love, but be careful, because it can set up expectations your brand can’t possibly live up to.

And camp number two: scientific jargon, even when it sounds catchy, leaves consumers cold. “Net zero” and “low-VOC” fell to the bottom of the scale in terms of self-reported understanding, actual understanding and consumer love. But consumers put a high priority on health and indoor air quality in our survey, and they warmed to the concept of net zero after being provided a definition. So why rely on cold, hard jargon to get your concept across when it’s so much better to talk in real, warm language about benefits?

We see great opportunity for marketers who use both kinds of terms: the opportunity for thorough, transparent communication about a product’s environmental benefits that makes consumers feel more knowledgeable and therefore more likely to trust your brand; and the opportunity to connect impenetrable jargon with things that consumers really do care about.

Want to see how each term performed on its own, including a complete demographic breakdown of the results and implications for your marketing strategy? The Buzz on Buzzwords is available in a downloadable format – highly visual, easily digestible and packed full of usable info.

Enjoy the read! And as always, reach out to us if you have questions or if we can help you leverage the insights in your marketing efforts.


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Posted on

September 2, 2015

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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