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Segmenting consumer behavior and purchasing drivers in “the world of sustainability”

6 min read


When it comes to the world of sustainability and consumer aspirations and purchasing behaviors, the stars don’t always align to make everyone successful and happy. Within that “world of sustainability” though — as The Hartman Group has labeled it — Laurie Demeritt told the group at last week’s FMI and GMA Global Sustainability Summit in Seattle, Wash., that there are various levels of consumers, grouped by their involvement and interests in making sustainable purchases — something CPG companies and retailers can benefit from understanding.

Segmenting the sustainable consumer

About 16% of people basically say that they don’t think about social and environmental concerns when they make a purchase, and moreover, that they don’t really believe there’s any social or environmental problems in the world, Demeritt explained.

The remaining 84% is segmented into two groups; the core being the traditional, “stereotypical sustainability consumer who cuts their own hair, puts it in the compost and goes out of their way to buy sustainable products,” Demeritt said. “A very, very loyal group, [and a] very, very small group.”

Then, there’s the inner-mid-level group, which is where the most opportunity lies when it comes to capturing sales dollars. Outside of that lays the outer-mid-level, or the periphery, which is a little less engaged and “not really putting any money where their feelings are yet.” Demeritt said.

For the periphery and outer-mid-level segment, it’s still about the key purchase criteria: price, convenience and comparability.

“We almost never will find anyone in that segment who is willing to pay more for a sustainable product,” Demeritt said, adding that these consumers also will not pay more for a product they have to go out of the way for, or for a product that they don’t think is comparable, in terms of quality, to a conventional product.

Meanwhile, higher-level issues such as authenticity and transparency are more important to the inner-mid-level core segment.

“Their friend who knows absolutely everything about sustainability tells them, ‘you absolutely have to drink organic milk,’ and they’ll do it because that friend is their expert,” said Demeritt. “They’re doing the due diligence to find out where these products are from and what these companies are doing.”

The personal benefit zone

Beyond product characteristics and facts, there is a “personal benefit zone” when it comes to consumers and sustainability, Demeritt said.

“Personal benefits are absolutely the gateway into sustainability,” she emphasized. “There are very few consumers who will just all of a sudden start buying things because they believe they’re better for the world and better for the planet. Unfortunately, as Americans, we’re pretty selfish. ‘What’s in it for me, first?’ They want to see a health benefit, a quality benefit or a financial benefit in almost all cases when they enter the world of sustainability. Other things start to become more important as they become more engaged, but that’s really the motivating force to get in.”

Consumers have also evolved to want to feel good about what they’re doing and buying as well, even if it is still essentially for themselves, their families or their households. Also, when consumers are making decisions on what sustainable products to buy, they prioritize what goes into their bodies first, followed by what goes on their bodies, what goes on around them and finally, what goes on outside the home.

“In many cases, it’s really about what’s happening within their household rather than what’s happening outside of their household,” Demeritt said. “So the adoption pathway, as we call it, tends to be food, personal care, cleaning products for the home and then things that are outside of your home. And so it’s a very personal and health based decision when they enter the marketplaces.”

Top purchase drivers and recommendations

The Hartman Group’s study found that the top four drivers when it came to purchasing a product were:

  1. Helpful products. It needs to save them money, be effective, taste good, smell good or help them look good.
  2. Support of U.S. economy, which has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve been in a recession.
  3. Animal welfare, social benefits. Products made by companies that treat their employees and animals, if involved, well.
  4. Packaging, which is something they see right away at the shelf, “so it’s very easy for them to make a determination on whether you’re sustainable or not,” Demeritt said.

To turn these drivers into sales dollars and larger – and sustainable – shopping baskets, Demeritt recommends talking to consumers about things that are local and community based, and what they can do in their households; “that’s where they get excited and that’s where they get passionate.”

Play up the benefits of the product and tell consumers how it will help them be healthier and make their lives better. Also, include messaging to communicate to consumers about sustainable packaging, animal welfare and certifications, which work especially well since it makes the consumer feel like the homework has been done for them, Demeritt said.

Most of all, be transparent. Tell consumers about what you’re doing; they want to have faith that you’re doing what you say you’re doing, Demeritt encouraged.

“In my line of business, we hear these amazing stories about what companies are doing around sustainability and they’re not doing it as a marketing ploy because frankly, they’re not telling anyone, they’re just doing it. Why? Because they’re scared,” Demeritt said. “If you go out and you’re not yet perfect, there’s a belief that you’re going to get called out on it and yes, the core consumers may call you out, but the mid-level consumers, they want to know what you’re doing. So be as visible as you can, if you’re not perfect, as long as you have metrics, you have goals and you measure out those goals along the way.”

Demeritt closed her presentation in advising the group of food industry leaders to use product benefits, knowledge, practicality and faith as a solution to bridging the gap between what consumers aspire to do and what they actually do.

“Find out what they know about your product, find out what they don’t know about your product and find out what they think they know, but they’re wrong about, so you can give them that knowledge that empowers them to make a choice that matters to them.”