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How to sell your purpose to people who don’t (wanna) buy it

Over the last decade, it has become the standard that brands make a positive impact on society and the planet. This impact is then translated into some sort of green sticker on the packaging, or used as purpose ammunition by the marketing department. This way, everyone can see that the brand is doing the right thing and will prefer them over less benevolent competitors. And at the end of the day, sales skyrocket, the world gets saved and even the most conscious consumers get to sleep with a clean conscience. Win-win-win! Right?

Not exactly. Over the last years the idea has grown that consumers are eagerly looking for brands that look beyond making a profit, and contribute to a higher social or environmental purpose. And don’t get us wrong, they do. It just doesn’t mean that they will actually buy your products because of it. An abundance of survey data has shown that people say they are willing to make better purchasing decisions and pay more for sustainable products, but in reality they often don’t. And due to the current rising inflation, this willingness is set to decrease even more.

Intention vs. Behavior

Call this whatever you want to (the intention-behavior gap, attitude-behavior gap the value-action gap), the bottom line is, people say they want to do the right thing far more easily than actually doing it. As a matter of fact, it is rather counter-productive to assume people will ‘just’ do the right thing. It leads to making products, services and brands that are marketed around an ethical selling point. And the problem with that is: people subconsciously feel like they are losing out on other aspects. 

For example, when a granola bar is marketed as healthy, people expect it to taste less good. A study even showed that when you give people identical foods, with one branded as healthy and the other as unhealthy, people will consistently rate the ‘healthier’ version as less tasty. Selling a sustainable product? People will immediately assume they are paying extra for it (and often they are). Research shows us: “a big challenge to sustainable consumer behavior is that consumers often perceive such actions as having some cost to the self, such as increased effort, increased cost, inferior quality, or inferior aesthetics.” The result is that people refrain from buying ethical products, and often this results in the justification from brands to not bother with healthy or sustainable products.

Profits or sustainability?

So basically there is no point in trying to contribute to a better world as a brand? Well, yes and no. There is of course a point, yet it might not result in profits and growth. As a matter of fact, increasingly research emerges that shows it is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile our current economic system (built on growth and efficiency) with solving the biosphere crisis, and we need fundamental changes to the system to even stand a chance. Basically, our conviction that a product doesn’t make sense if it’s not making a profit, is clashing with our hope that a product shouldn’t make sense if it’s contributing to climate destruction. We are slowly finding out that we might not be able to have both.

Or can we?

Assuming this is a hard sell to almost every brand out there, there might another way. See, people by and large do not buy sustainable products just because they wish to do good, we are more complicated than that. We buy sustainable products, or any product for that matter, for a large range of reasons; because it signals our values to others, because we want to fit in, because we think it gives us status, because it’s a habit, or simply because it makes us feel good about ourselves. And for this range of motives –something like sustainability – can be the vehicle, instead of the destination.

Speaking of, vehicles might be the perfect illustration. People don’t buy a Tesla or a VanMoof just because it’s sustainable, but also because it shows status and it signals progressive and modern values (and apparently gets you more tinder matches).

So if you want to sell your purpose to people, you have to get creative. Don’t just give people sustainability, give them something they get out of sustainability.

Struggling to find ways how to? Shoot us a message and we would love to brainstorm with you 🙂