When Less is More: How Mindset Influences Consumers’ Responses to Products with Reduced Negative Attributes

Research

Marketing

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

Published in Journal of Marketing, 2020 

As companies embrace sustainability and circular economy concepts, they are transforming products and services to reduce negative impacts (e.g., “our mineral water now uses 34% less plastic”). 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? 

New research by Dr Vincent Chi Wong, Assistant Professor of Marketing and co-authors challenges this common intuition and finds 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 have positive or negative influence depends on whether consumers interpret such claims 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. 

In this research, Wong and his co-authors manipulated consumers’ mindsets by exposing them to marketing materials such as advertising slogans, promotional direct mail, and spokespersons’ quotes. Results show that activating consumers’ incremental (vs. entity) mindset leads to more favourable 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. Ironically, communicating a reduced negative attribute leads to poorer sales compared to no communication for consumers with an entity mindset. 

The findings have managerial marketing implications. The research provides new techniques in marketers’ toolbox to activate more easily consumers’ incremental versus entity mindsets as a controllable variable. In addition, companies intuitively expect that promoting a reduction in negative attributes should benefit sales as opposed to doing nothing. The 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).