Every year, two billion tons of waste end up in landfills around the world, posing a continuous threat to the environment, the economy, and society. Recognizing this trend, companies have started to repurpose, meaning upcycle or recycle, old or discarded products to create new products. The creative industry has started to push repurposing, too. For example, the main character in Toy Story 4 is Forky, a toy figure repurposed from an old plastic spork.
Despite an increase in repurposed products in the marketplace, consumers still opt for conventional products in the vast majority of cases. A new study in the Journal of Marketing explores how companies can increase the appeal of repurposed products.
In the past, companies sold these products by stressing their pro-environmental benefits. Treading new ground, our research team discovered a new way of creating demand for repurposed products. Rather than emphasizing repurposing’s benefits for the environment, companies can embrace a novel way of storytelling. Like Forky in Toy Story 4, every repurposed product has a past identity as waste (e.g., a spork) and a new identity as a repurposed product (e.g., a toy figure). This makes repurposed products similar to Cinderella, who transformed from a lowly past identity into a shiny new identity. Like Cinderella and Forky, repurposed products have their own biographical stories to tell. We discovered that simply alerting consumers to a product’s past identity leads them to understand that the product holds a story. Interestingly, we also find that consumers feel more special with a product once they understand that it has a unique biographical story. Across field studies and more controlled studies, we consistently find that demand increases once consumers are alerted to a product’s past. For example, in an upcycling pop-up store, revenues more than quadrupled when we made the past lives of products the focal point of our marketing materials. This holds across a wide variety of products ranging from bags made from mosquito nets to tables made from pallets, to cake stands made from pot lids and chandeliers made from test tubes. We also find this holds for both upcycled and recycled products. Highlighting a product’s past identity as waste never reduced demand, even if the past identity of a product was unappealing or disgusting.
So, what should marketers, consumers, and societal stakeholders do to drive demand for repurposed goods?
For marketers, our research shows that the key to selling repurposed products is to highlight their past identities because these are the beginning of their unique product biographies. Marketers should remember that consumers appear to feel special when they obtain a product that holds its own story and that consumers pick up this story pretty much by themselves. Perhaps it is time to think of marketing as the creation of a projection space for stories that consumers tell rather than marketers.
In our paper, we discuss many ways of highlighting repurposed products’ stories. For example, an ad or product display could:
- Directly reference a product’s prior life such as, “In my previous life, I used to be old plastic.”
- Feature a heading that states what the product has been in the past: “I used to be a/n…airbag/old bottle….” for an ad for a backpack which is upcycled from an old airbag or recycled from old plastic.
- Highlight what a product is made from. For example, “made from a pallet” for an ad for a table which has been made from an old pallet.
- Include a picture that shows what the old product/waste looked like.
Sometimes customers can easily see the product’s past identity at a glance. For example, if a vase is made from a light bulb, it is obvious to consumers that the vase is made from a light bulb. In these cases, the product itself already tells its story and companies do not need to highlight its past identity. Nonetheless, marketers can help tell these stories by reinforcing the natural flow of the story: Feature the past identity first, e.g., by showing a picture of the lightbulb and then showing the present identity, e.g., the transformed light bulb vase.
For consumers, we find that repurposed products hold allure because they are special products different from the norm. Repurposed products hold unique stories that one can talk about and that make the product stand apart. Buying repurposed products means a chance to feel a bit more special oneself and to reduce waste at the same time.
For societal stakeholders, we offer a new strategy for pushing pro-environmental behaviors without appealing to people’s conscience and urging them to care for the planet. In the case of choosing repurposed over conventional products, pro-environmental behavior can become an added treat, thanks to the fact that these products have a special biography.
Read the authors’ slides for sharing this material in your classroom.
From: Bernadette Kamleitner, Carina Thürridl, and Brett Martin, “A Cinderella Story: How Past Identity Salience Boosts Demand for Repurposed Products,” Journal of Marketing, 83 (November).
Go to the Journal of Marketing