Environmental claims linked directly to consumer benefit can amplify brand reach

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and Edelman
Source: NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and Edelman

Related tags Sustainability Packaging Marketing

Sustainability messages can have a “dramatic amplifier effect” on brands’ reach and appeal when paired with traditional category claims such as “tastes great,” but to fully leverage their power marketers should focus on how sustainability claims benefit consumers’ daily lives, not just that of the planet, research released this morning reveals.

In a “first-of-its-kind” study​ presented at the Cannes Lions Festival today, the NYU Stern Center or Sustainable Business and communications firm Edelman examined the appeal of 30-35 claims made by nine global brands, including Dove chocolate maker Mars and Hellmann’s maker Unilever, to assess the extent to which environmental sustainability claims motivate consumers.

“We were delighted to see that while sustainability claims were resonating and compelling in their own right, they actually had this incredible amplifier effect when paired with core category claims,”​ which are “non-negotiable”​ and describe benefits that are germane to the category overall, such as taste and performance, Randi Kronthal-Sacco, senior scholar at NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business and lead researcher on the project, told FoodNavigator-USA.

She explained that the addition of one or two sustainability claims expanded brand reach upward of 25-33 percentage points compared to just one or two category claims. And that reach extended across demographics, including age, gender, political affiliation, income and education levels.

“That was a surprise,”​ because not many CPG brands currently talk about sustainability for fear of potentially alienating consumer segments or because they thought consumers didn’t care about sustainability, Kronthal-Sacco explained.

“The second surprise was that the claims that worked best in this amplifier effect were the ones really focused on improving consumers’ daily lives, which may be fairly obvious to marketers, but until now most sustainability marketers believed that if you told consumers that a product was better for the world that would resonate, when in fact these science-focused claims did not perform as well,”​ she added.

For example, she said, claims that focused on “my health, my wealth, my personal world”​ were much more effective than those that focused solely on planetary benefits.

“One of the examples I tend to talk about is around energy savings. So claims that talk about greenhouse gas emissions performed really poorly, but if you talked about energy saving, lowering your energy bill or putting money back in your pockets – those claims did very well,”​ Kronthal-Sacco said.

Other examples include “100% sustainably farmed for great taste” or “100% sustainably farmed for great quality and delicious taste.”

Similarly, claims about the scientific benefits of regenerative agriculture, such as around soil health or capturing nitrogen, were not as compelling as claims that focused on partnerships with local farm, she said.

Other claims that did well included “anything around animal welfare”​ and children, and those claims that focused on local sourcing, she said.

Are certifications necessary?

Among the sustainability claims that resonated least with consumers were those related to certifications, according to the research.

While a handful of certification-related claims, such as cruelty free and USDA Organic, positively influenced purchases, most did not. For example, non-GMO and B Corp resonated with only 70% of consumers, while Rainforest Alliance and Member of Alliance for Water Stewardship came in even lower at 62% and 46%, according to the study.

But, Kronthal-Sacco was quick to point out this does not mean certifications are not useful. Quite the opposite, she stressed, certifications “have a really important role to protect against greenwashing,”​ and they do offer some validation to consumers.

To boost their impact, she recommended brands and certifiers better communicate the value of certifications, what they represent and what is required to earn them.

Certifications may take on increased importance in the coming years as the Federal Trade Commission updates its “Green Guides” to clarify when environmental claims are and are not appropriate and as environmental benefit clams come under regulators’ and litigators’ microscopes.

Packaging claims have little impact

Other environmental claims that fell short were those focused on packaging.

According to the research, consumers care less about packaging claims unless it is “made with 100% recycled material.” Claims that a package is “100% recyclable,” “refillable,” made with little or no plastic or compostable/biodegradable all under performed.

An exception was when these claims were paired with an explanation about why a consumer should care about them – especially when those explanations brought the benefit back to the consumer.

For example, the claims “microplastic-free packaging for human and ocean health”​ and “recycled bottled: saves 2 million tons of ocean bound plastic annually”​ resonated better with consumers than just “microplastic-free” ​and “recycled bottled,”​ according to the study.

Best practices

Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that CPG companies maximize the impact of sustainability and environmental claims by:

  • Linking them to category “reason-for-being” claims, like great taste or health,
  • Focusing on the benefit to the consumer and their families,
  • Providing a monetary benefit when possible,
  • Connecting on an emotional level with references to the long term health of the planet and future generations or children,
  • Sticking to the basics of “sustainable sourcing” claims, which do not need additional explanation, and
  • Linking them to animal welfare when appropriate.


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