What Are They THINKING?

Posted: September 13, 2009 by
Dr. Elise L. Amel and Dr. Christie M. Manning

How can we connect with the consumer and "help them help us" change the way we serve society and impact our world? In this second article concluding a two-part series, we will look inside the mind of the consumer.

What are they THINKING?

The truth is, most Americans don't think about packaging. They buy a product, and then toss aside the layers of paper and plastic. In fact, the stuff they're mindlessly tossing aside has more power over them and more impact on the world than they might realize. Besides filling our landfills and polluting our air and water, packaging "features" influence buying choices and can confound even those with the best environmental intentions.

Research shows there is a disconnect between what people believe and what they do. If you ask Americans to list their values, they identify conservation and efficiency, freedom and fairness, equality and justice. But when you look at what they actually do, the values they live out tend to be cheapness and novelty, fun and fashion, comfort and convenience, "cool"-ness, and conformity (Source: Jim Farrell, St. Olaf College, The Nature of American Life).

Current packaging trends exploit this disconnect through features like perceived convenience (New! Convenient pour spout!), usability (New! No-drip pour spout!), and pizzazz (New! Bright sparkly pour spout!), as well as marketing tricks such as "Buy two and get one free!" and "Collect the whole set!" These strategies tend to override any intention the buyer may have had to consider sustainability. Until people truly walk their sustainability talk, the trick will be to serve both conservation and convenience so that, no matter what, people focus on the package will be environmentally sound.
As you can imagine there are many distinctly different mindsets when it comes to packaging. Understanding these distinctions can help us design sustainable packages that appeal to these mindsets.

The clueless

These folks are a critical group to sneak onboard as they tend to buy a lot of stuff. So the more sustainable the packaging the less impact they will have—despite themselves. Creative, "stealth sustainable" packaging can satisfy this group. For example, the refillable toothbrush that is packaged in its own travel container reduces the need for a second product, reduces what is thrown away, etc.

Packaging can also take advantage of people's motivations; for instance, people's concern for their own and their family's health (this container made with no PVC); a desire for convenience (easily stackable fridge-boxes); a sense of novelty (plant this package in your garden); or a sense of being part of a hip trend (think: IKEA).

The good intentioned

"If you build it, they will come." A growing market segment intentionally buys "green" products, but for these folks packaging is just not on the radar. These people have a higher impact on the environment than they realize, because they don't consider packaging part of the "product."

They'll pick up the organic tofu in the non-recyclable, hard plastic package. Luckily, research shows that people are moved by information about effectiveness, so if you prompt this group with cues that packaging is part of their environmental impact, then they are likely to jump.

The converted

A rapidly growing number of consumers do pay close attention to the sustainability of packaging (some almost obsessively!). Their goal is to minimize their ecological footprint. It is part of their identity and important to their personal standards. For people like this, it feels bad to buy any product—even a "green" product—if it's wrapped in too many layers of plastic or a polystyrene tub.

Unsustainable packaging creates a dilemma for these shoppers: It's important to them to buy the locally-produced, organic yogurt, but they can't get past the packaging. Often, they decide to forego the purchase.

To reach these packaging-mindful shoppers, consistency between values AND product AND packaging is key. Here, clearly identifying packaging benefits is critical. For example, Peace Coffee easily fits the green identity and goals since it is organic, shade-grown, fair-trade, and bicycle-delivered. Their packaging is consistent and its features prominently displayed—"recycled content," "printed with soy ink," "unbleached," "compostable." Moreover, they could easily add that the packages are reusable.

Packaging can serve its purpose without harming the earth. Make people notice sustainable packaging, and give them the opportunity to be awed by its innovation. The key is to consider what people are (or are not) thinking.

Dr. Elise L. Amel is an industrial-organizational psychologist who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.
Dr. Christie Manning, a cognitive and biological psychologist, is a research fellow at the Center for Global Environmental Education and an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas, Hamline University, and Augsburg College.