Sustainable product launch: Bridging consumer's ‘say-do gap’

Sustainable product launch: Bridging consumer's ‘say-do gap’
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<div class="insights_cta-component">This is the third article in our series covering Sustainability Transformation. See the full series below.</div>

Introduction - sustainable does not imply consumer-first

Back in2010, PepsiCo made a bold move by introducing compostable packaging for its Sun Chips brand: same potato chips in the bag, the same price point, but improved sustainability. While the aim was to reduce branded litter, the execution backfired spectacularly, turning Sun Chips into a laughingstock. The culprit? An incredibly loud bag that emitted a 95-decibel crunch - loud enough to damage people’s hearing. It's safe to say that the sustainability improvement had an enormous drawback in terms of convenience.

This example highlights the critical notion that sustainability alone isn't enough to make a product successful. Just like any other product, sustainable offerings must provide tangible benefits to consumers. And while this notion is not new to any consumer business, many still struggle to generate demand and commercial success for sustainable product launches because what consumers ‘say’ they want, does not equal what they actually ‘do’ in front of the shelf. This phenomenon is also known as the ‘say-do gap’. In this article, we will dive deeper into the underlying dynamics of this gap and provide a perspective on what you can do as a business to bridge this gap.

What the ‘say-do gap’ entails

While 97% of consumers claim a willingness to adopt sustainable lifestyles, only 13% actively change their behavior (WFA Sustainability Sector Index). Grocery retail exemplifies the 'say-do gap,' where consumers express concern about sustainability but don't consistently purchase sustainable products. So, the question arises: why don’t consumers practice what they preach?

A major reason for the say-do gap is that consumers encounter – real or perceived – barriers when it comes to purchasing sustainable products. As illustrated in the figure below, these barriers can be allocated to four categories: product performance, price point, convenience, and availability. Many of these perceived barriers are not based on facts but on prior experience or stigmas. Nevertheless, for businesses it is vital to address these (perceived) barriers for a successful product launch. In the next chapters we will tell you why and how to do that.  

What the ‘say-do gap’ means for businesses

The ‘say-do gap’ poses a distinct challenge for businesses as it introduces uncertainty into customer demand for new, sustainable product launches. Even when consumers vocalize a commitment to sustainability, their purchasing decisions are influenced by a multitude of other factors which can lead to a drop in consumer demand for sustainability products. Successfully navigating this gap isn't just about meeting consumer expectations; it's a strategic imperative for long-term viability in a market increasingly shaped by environmentally aware consumers. And the urge to bridge the gap isn't just a nod to sustainability; it's a commitment that businesses must embody for a resilient and loyal customer base.

How to bridge the gap – focus on consumer benefit

Now that we've identified the urge to close the say-do gap, let’s get you started on actually taking action. The crux of success lies in ensuring that every sustainable product offers tangible benefits beyond being environmentally friendly. In this respect, launching a sustainable product is no different from introducing regular products. A common misconception among companies is that sustainability itself is a sufficient consumer benefit, while for the vast majority of consumers, it is not. In fact, for most people, sustainability is an important factor, but it is not the sole determinant of their purchasing decisions. They also consider performance, price, and convenience. However, for a small number of highly environmentally conscious consumers, sustainability is a critical decision factor.

While the desire to create sustainable products is commendable, many companies focus too heavily on sustainability enhancements during the early stages of product development, often neglecting essential attributes like performance, usability, and competitive pricing. This approach can result in the launch of sustainable products that lack compelling benefits for consumers, or at least benefits that most customers are willing to pay a premium for.

Instead, follow one rule: the new product needs to offer consumers a clear additional benefit in terms of performance, price or convenience – and at the same time be sustainable.

Sometimes, a new product offers a clear benefit on some dimensions and a step back on others. For example, products like bars (for shampoo) or refillables (for hand wash) tend to have as primary benefit a lower price point, and at the same time are somewhat of a step back in terms of convenience or product performance. And yes, these products have the adjacent benefit of being more sustainable(typically, less plastic and lower emissions) – but by now you know that most consumers are not willing to pay for that. In such cases it requires diligent consumer testing to verify how individual consumers weigh the product benefits(in this case, a lower price point) versus the drawbacks (in this case, lower[perceived] performance or convenience). This testing should enable you to grasp the feasibility and potential of the new product prior to its launch.

And remember: also in this case, the fact that the bar or refillable product is more sustainable is not factored into the actual purchase decision of the vast majority of consumers.

Subsequently, the product and its benefits should be mentally and physically visible to consumers and as you can imagine already, messaging is the instrument to accomplish this transparency. In that context, timing is essential. The first step to winning your consumers for sustainable innovations is to understand when, or even more specifically - at which touchpoints, perceived barriers arise within their journey. You need to tackle these perceived barriers immediately at the moment they arise – which then needs to happen through balanced messaging (e.g., emphasizing ease-of-use in commercials, and cost savings in-store). Additionally, make sure your new sustainable products are widely available to tackle any perceived barrier of lack of availability.

By securing a new product with additional benefits beyond being sustainable, and combining effective messaging and widespread availability, you will have paved the way for a successful launch of your new sustainable products.

Looking towards a consumption-shift in the future – make sure you are ready to head-start

Lastly, let’s have a brief look at a shift that we expect in the near future, affecting everything we discussed in this article– the rise of sustainability as the norm rather than the exception. As environmental consciousness increasingly takes a center stage in the collective mindset, consumers are increasingly demanding products that not only meet their needs but also align with their values. This shift signifies a crucial turning point where sustainability is no longer a niche market but an integral part of mainstream consumption. We already see this happening today; from eco-friendly packaging to responsibly sourced materials, companies are recognizing the imperative to adopt environmentally conscious practices.

While it's difficult to predict how the 'say-do gap' will be affected by this trend, or how quickly sustainability will become the norm given global instability, inflation, and rising living costs, we do anticipate a fundamental shift in consumer expectations and industry standards. Businesses should prepare for these ethical choices in production and consumption, and be ready to seize an early advantage by effectively creating demand for sustainable products through proven consumer benefits and balanced messaging.

Conclusion –Successful sustainable product launches & bridging the ‘say-do gap’

The 'say-do gap' is a paradoxical yet understandable phenomenon. While the transition towards a sustainable product economy is imperative, it's a complex and challenging endeavor. The current reality is that most consumers aren't yet walking the talk, making it difficult for businesses to navigate this delicate balance.

However, the need to bridge this gap is clear: develop products that simultaneously enhance consumer value and embody sustainability. We anticipate a future where sustainable products are the norm, not the exception. To prepare for this shift, businesses can seize a nearly advantage by effectively cultivating demand for sustainable products through proven consumer benefits and balanced messaging. This approach will help bridge the 'say-do gap' and pave the way for successful sustainable product development and adoption.


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Sustainable product launch: Bridging consumer's ‘say-do gap’

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Amy Tuk
Practice Lead Sustainability

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