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Is Less More? How Consumers View Sustainability Claims

Is Less More? How Consumers View Sustainability Claims

Vincent Chi Wong, Lei Su and Howard Pong-Yuen Lam

As companies embrace sustainability and circular economy concepts, they are transforming products and services to reduce negative impacts. Changes include choosing new materials and production processes, lightweight packaging, and collecting waste to reuse in future products. By so doing, they can help preserve the environment for future generations, burnish their corporate social responsibility credentials, and, ideally, drive sales with values-based consumers. But is it true that sustainability claims increase sales?

A new Journal of Marketing study challenges this common intuition and offers consumer insights to guide marketing teams’ communication of products’ negatively framed attributes.


Our research team found that a marketing claim of reducing negative product properties may be interpreted by consumers in one of two ways:

  1. view the claim as improving the product relative to its previous state; or
  2. draw attention to a negative product feature that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Moreover, whether such claims positively or negatively influence consumers depends on whether such claims are interpreted through an incremental or entity mindset. Consumers with an incremental mindset (i.e., the tendency to think of attributes as malleable) take a trend-based view of a reduction in negative attributes, which results in improved product evaluations. In contrast, consumers with an entity mindset (i.e., attributes are unlikely to change) view these claims negatively. Four experiments and a field survey confirm the effects in both Eastern (Hong Kong and mainland China) and Western societies (the United States and the United Kingdom).

We first manipulated consumers’ mindsets by exposing them to marketing materials such as advertising slogans, promotional direct mail, and spokespersons’ quotes. These materials highlight either people’s changeability (e.g., “We always change with you” in the incremental mindset condition) or their commitment to consistency (e.g., “We always stay the same with you” in the entity mindset condition). Results show that activating consumers’ incremental (vs. entity) mindset leads to more favorable evaluations for luncheon meat with sodium nitrite reduced by 30%, for frozen mussels with reduced microplastic content, and for antidiabetic drugs with reduced side effects. In other studies, we measured consumers’ chronic incremental and entity mindsets and show that those with a dominant incremental (vs. entity) mindset preferred stereo speakers with 50% less non-recyclable materials, bottled water with plastic materials reduced by 35%, and yogurt with 50% reduced sugar. We also found that, ironically, communicating a reduced negative attribute leads to poorer sales compared to no communication for consumers with an entity mindset.

Our findings have managerial marketing implications. First, our research provides new techniques in marketers’ toolbox to activate more easily consumers’ incremental versus entity mindsets as a controllable variable. Second, companies intuitively expect that promoting a reduction in negative attributes should benefit sales as opposed to doing nothing. Our findings imply that communicating a reduced negative attribute might have unintended consequences if consumers approach it with the wrong mindset. Accordingly, marketers should estimate the potential risks of such communications and carry out such communication strategically (along with properly activating consumers’ mindset). However, these investments only appear necessary when consumers believe the attribute is difficult to eliminate and when the attribute does not have extremely threatening consequences. Consumers who perceive that manufacturers can quite easily eliminate the negative attribute would interpret its mere reduction as insufficient. Thus, marketers need to appropriately remind consumers of the difficulty of completely removing the negative attribute. In addition, extremely harmful negative attributes that frighten consumers might diminish the effects. Thus, marketers should investigate consumers’ perception of threat for the negative attributes before implementing the strategy.

Third, marketers may also strategically induce these mindsets to fight against competitors. To entice consumers from a competitor’s product that claims a reduction of a negative attribute, marketers may activate an entity mindset using advertising slogans (e.g., De Beers’ “A diamond is forever”). Moreover, slogans for significant social events can also temporarily prime different mindsets (e.g., Barack Obama’s “Change we can believe in” likely activated an incremental mindset). Marketers can strategically leverage such social events as opportunities to promote products containing reduced negative attributes.

Fourth, individuals in Western countries (e.g., Americans) typically hold entity beliefs whereas those in Eastern countries (e.g., Chinese) typically hold incremental beliefs by default. Thus, promotion strategies for products with reduced negative attributes need to be customized across cultures. Similarly, consumers’ incremental versus entity mindset can be traced to demographic, geographic, or political ideology information. Marketers need to consider these factors when promoting products with a reduced negative attribute.

Read the full article

From: Vincent Chi Wong, Lei Su, and Howard Pong-Yuen Lam, “When Less is More: How Mindset Influences Consumers’ Responses to Products with Reduced Negative Attributes,” Journal of Marketing.

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Vincent Chi Wong is Assistant Professor of Marketing, College of Business, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

Lei Su is Associate Professor of Marketing, School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong.

Howard Pong-Yuen Lam is Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Marketing, Business School, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.