How sustainability messages break through with busy shoppers

Package InSight
Most participants in a recent packaging study didn’t notice sustainability logos on any of the products.

Every Sunday, I and seemingly every other resident in my city head to the local grocer to stock up for the week. The average shopper only needs 41 minutes to complete this task, but I am a packaging nerd, so I typically spend an hour or so perusing the crowded shelves.

Within this short amount of time, a typical shopper encounters 30,000 products and 9,378 pieces of marketing material. Is it even possible for a shopper who spends 41 minutes in the store to see all of those products? Let’s do the math: If a shopper spends just one-half second on each message coming at them in the proverbial zoo of a grocery store, they would be in the store for a whopping 55 hours.

So when you think about the discrepancy between the time shoppers can afford versus the time they would need to absorb the entire footprint of a store, it makes perfect sense that packages and their barrage of logos and labels are often overlooked.

In order to quantify this attention deficit, a new study tested sustainability messaging on paperboard with 60 participants. The research was performed with eye-tracking technology that provided insight to the shoppers’ nonconscious responses by recording eye movements and visual fixations. Package InSight and QuadPackaging partnered on the research, which was performed at Clemson University’s CUshop, a fully-immersive, in-context, retail consumer-experience laboratory.

To establish if they have any impact, sustainability logos were applied to various faux-brand paperboard packages in myriad product categories found within a typical grocery store. A unique logo was used, one intended to replicate an inspection or grading scale (local public health department’s A-B-C grading of restaurants) and the validation of that grade by a larger objective entity (e.g. Brewers Association Independent Craft Brewer Seal).

During the study participants' time in the store, eye-tracking data was gathered, continuously recording and pinpointing the participant’s visual and nonconscious attention at 50 times per second. This study generated over 800,000 data points (60 participants at 4m-average time spent in CUshop) that were then aggregated to draw relevant conclusions.

The results showed that while 40 percent of the participants claimed sustainability influences their decision-making when purchasing products, 92 percent of participants didn’t notice sustainability logos on any of the products. Those participants who reported noticing the logo on products while shopping actually spent no time looking at them.

So, the question is, how can brands ensure that their sustainability messages stand out in an overcrowded marketplace?

When it comes to sustainability claims on packaging, shoppers need to understand what they are looking for and why they are looking for it in order for a product to stand out. For sustainable packaging to be seen and understood, shoppers need education on the brand’s commitment to sustainability through integrated marketing campaigns and purposeful follow-through on package design.

Sustainability messaging doesn’t have to live and die on the front of a package. Why not build a story around your sustainability claim? Advertisements, social media, landing pages, videos and in-store POPs are all ways for businesses to engage consumers and communicate their brand story and values. If you make a significant effort to educate shoppers about sustainability messages outside of the store, their subconscious will be activated when they are shopping in the store.   

Research indicates that if a brand's message successfully appeals to a person's subconscious emotions, their behavior will be nudged in the preferred direction. However, it is naive to think there’s a "one size fits all" approach to this.

With the busy lifestyle of the average person today, probably more than one of us wish there were 55 hours in a day. Even so, I doubt many would want to spend those extra hours grocery shopping. If anything, we want to cut down on time in the grocery store spent sifting through the information that bombards us at every turn.

Walking into the grocery store with the knowledge of how to look for things such as sustainability that are important to us would speed up that process. Reading online about a company that is working hard to make their packaging more sustainable will make it easier to choose that brand once you’re in the store, give you an emotional attachment to that brand, and make the shopping experience faster, so you can get to those things you really want to spend your time doing — such as planning your next vacation.