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Think you know how your customers view your brand? Think again.

Think you know how your customers view your brand? Think again.

People do think about sustainability in their purchasing decisions. While we’re all aware of the say-do gap in what people say they want and how people act, it is still important for retailers to be seen to address sustainability in products and services. Yet the say-do gap goes beyond what people say they want and how they behave. It is also present in what consumers say and what they really think. 

As a researcher for a retail brand, it’s likely you will have at one point endeavored to understand how your customers perceive your brand in terms of sustainability, potentially in comparison to your key competitors. You may have asked your consumers how sustainable you and other brands are on five-point scale, and you would end up with something like this:

rating scale of sustainability


If you’re in the Marks and Spencer insight team, you’d be delighted. A score above all your competitors. On the other hand, over at Aldi, you may see this as a call for a big expensive push of your sustainability credentials. The problem is the above ranking is wrong. 

Sustainability is a complex topic, and there are many elements and associations that combine to create a perception of sustainability. Sure, elements like “environmental impact”, “organic,” and “ethical” produce play a part in the view of sustainability, but so do elements such as “community” or “quality of life” and “responsibility”. The challenge for researchers is that these drivers cannot be articulated consciously by consumers, you can only access a true understanding of what sustainability means in the unconscious. 

By using System 3 methodologies, you can go beyond the initial conscious reaction to understand not only how people view your brand in terms of sustainability but the key unconscious drivers that build a narrative of sustainability in the mind of your customer. Rather than ask a customer to rank perceptions of sustainability on a Likert scale, we ask them to tell us a story about sustainability and how it impacts their lives. It’s these narratives that can give you a deeper and more accurate understanding of sustainability that has far more influence on the consumer's purchasing behavior than a conscious System 1 reaction. 

So what does the System 3 ranking of sustainability look like? 

System 3 ranking of sustainability


As you can see the reality of how people perceive sustainable brands unconsciously is very different. Co-op moves up 3 places to take the first position, while M&S drops from 1st to 6th. We can also a significant upwards move for Sainsburys. Understanding this true ranking alone could put a very different spin on your sustainable initiatives, but the real value in the System 3 methodology is understanding the why behind the what. 

When people tell themselves stories about sustainability, they do not necessarily think of it globally or even nationally. There are, of course, obvious drivers and associations such as “recycling” or the “environment”, but consumers often think locally. People recycle locally, and their connection with sustainable initiatives are generally local initiatives. This is why many people associate local government with sustainability rather than national government. And, among other elements, it’s this idea of sustainability linked to “community” that pushes Co-op to the top of the rankings. 

Of course, it’s important not be reductive - there are more than a dozen drivers in perceptions of sustainability across those brands, and for each brand we can see different drivers with varying levels of importance. For Sainsbury’s, it’s an association with “fair trade” that helps push them up the rankings. However, by understanding those drivers you will understand the levers you can use to build a sustainable brand in the consumers mind. Marks and Spencer does not have the local community saliency that some of their competitors have. Creating a campaign that builds on local sustainable initiatives could potentially create a better perception of a sustainable brand for M&S customers. 

The challenge for researchers is that traditional surveys and Likert scales will provide a superficial conscious “what”. However, it’s only through behavioral science research that will provide a deeper understanding of the “what”, but also the “why”. It’s that “why” that will give you the where next for your brand.

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