When it comes to the environment, consumer behavior can be inconsistent or even a bit hypocritical. Two-car families will buy a hybrid and a gas guzzling SUV. Parents will teach their kids to turn off the water while brushing, but take a few extra minutes in the shower to enjoy the peace and quiet. Somehow, we tend to overlook our own inconsistencies, while holding others accountable for their actions.
Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that consumers tend to be less forgiving of a brand’s missteps than their own. They are quick to assume green washing regardless of good intensions.
Why is it that consumers hold green brands to a higher standard than they do themselves?
It is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, as human beings, we have a harder time taking stock of our own actions than another’s. But, the distinction goes further.
First, consumers turn to brands as a form of self-expression based on who they are today, or who they ideally want to be. For consumers to do so, brands need to clearly articulate what they believe in and be consistent in how they express these beliefs. Arguably, this is especially important for green brands, as most mainstream consumers tend to be less familiar with them or how they benefit the environment. As a result, consumers tend to rely more heavily on green brands for guidance when making purchase decisions.
Second, consumers expect green brands to deliver on promised reductions in environmental impact. When they don't, consumers feel disappointed that expectations are not met, or frustrated because, despite good intensions, they are not able to make a positive impact that they anticipated.
A recent personal example:
For the past year, I have turned to OZOcar, the eco-friendly car service, to help me reduce my eco-impact from business travel. On one recent occasion, OZOcar ran out of cars and farmed my ride out to one of several livery companies in its network. Instead of a Prius, the vehicle that arrived was a gas-guzzling Suburban. An eco-friendly car service providing about the least eco-friendly ride. In marketing terms, the Suburban was off brand.
While this was not part of my typical experience with OZOcar, it offered three clear lessons for all brands:
1. Be clear about what a brand promise is and isn’t. Brands should set clear expectations about their brand promise. For example, it is not unreasonable for a small company like OZOcar to send a gas-powered substitute – preferably a sedan instead of an SUV – when its fleet is being fully used. That said, brands should clearly set expectations upfront so that consumers know what to expect and are not free to interpret perceived (or actual) inconsistencies in their own way.
2. Fulfill on a brand promise, or modify the promise. A customer service manager at OZOcar did offer to change my individual profile to state that I did not want to be picked up in an SUV. I asked if they would consider changing their policy so that their network would not send SUVs to any OZOcar customers. They said that they would look into it.
3. Know how consumers perceive a brand. What matters most is not what a brand says about itself, but how consumers perceive it. As such, marketers should stay abreast of how consumers perceive their brand by soliciting feedback during customer interactions or monitoring (and perhaps joining) online conversations in social media. This will enable a brand to quickly adjust its messaging – or its offering – to reinforce its brand promise.