Buying Behavior is Emotional, Not Rational

HBR’s article “Ethical Shoppers Don’t Inspire Us — They Bug Us” shares the results from a research study about how humans use and process ethical information when making consumer product buying decisions.

Previous studies had found that people rarely sought out information on ethical practices (eg: use of child labor or sustainability practices) when making buying decisions. People did not actively seek this information out because they didn’t want to risk feeling bad. They would only use the information if it was easily and immediately available at the time of purchase.

This recent study asked how respondents viewed other people who did seek this information out — trying to get at the social consequences. The study found that instead of admiring the behavior of people who sought out the ethical information, they saw these people as “odd” and “boring”.

It’s not so surprising to learn that people don’t like to be made to feel bad. And when they see a another person being proactively ethical, it feels threatening to their self-image, and they reflexively put that person down in order to feel better.

The researchers were not judging people for feeling or behaving this way, nor am I. Successful marketing requires we only tat meet consumers where they are. And knowing this about our consumers points toward a particular strategic approach when your product has an ethical differentiation.

  1. Make the claim visible at the point purchase. Buyers will not go looking for the information, but if it’s easily available to them, they will use it.
  2. Keep your messaging aspirational vs negative avoidance. People would rather feel good about themselves and will avoid messaging that brings up bad feelings.