Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd,

Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Anglia Ruskin University

Understanding consumer decision making: One approach to guiding consumers to make sustainable food choices.

Brief biography of the submitter: Dr Jansson-Boyd is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. She both teaches and researches different areas of Consumer Psychology. Some of her research interests include how to reduce energy consumption in vulnerable populations, how touch affect product evaluation and aesthetic product design. Cathrine has acted as a consultant for a number of companies and organisations (e.g. Coutts Marketing Communications, Office of Fair Trading and Disney) advising on various aspects of decision making, design, and branding. She has published in a number of scientific journals.

Executive summary

· This report outlines a number of consumer psychology related techniques that can be used to encourage consumers to purchase sustainable food products.

· All the techniques outlined directly or indirectly influence consumer decision making.

· The paper is broadly categorised into three sections:

1. The techniques that can be implanted to ensure that people pay attention to messages about sustainability.

2. How to get people involved in sustainable consumption.

3. Different types of persuasive techniques that can be implemented to convince consumers to purchase sustainable foods.

· Techniques to capture consumer attention include novel elements, colour, movement and where something is positioned.

· Consumers also pay more attention to information that they have a particular interest in.

· Getting people involved can be done through practically based involvement as well as emotional based involvement.

· Making messages about sustainability personally relevant, and to be seen to be important as well as making people feel personally responsible, are efficient methods when it comes to ensuring that people will think about what they have been told.

· A person conveying the message that sustainable consumption is important, needs to be someone who is deemed to be credible.

· Incentives can be utilised to alter and reinforce peoples’ behaviours so that they are in line with sustainable consumption.

· Simply trying to change people’s attitudes is not a guarantee that the preferred behaviour will follow suit.

· By presenting information in terms of gains vs. no gain, or losses vs. no loss, it is possible to manipulate consumer food preferences.

· It is important to identify possible barriers as to why people do not purchase sustainable foods.

· It is also important not to bombard consumers with too much information as it may not have the desired effect.


1. A common problem in communicating with mass audiences is that it is difficult to get them to pay attention to the message and take it onboard. In today’s society consumers are bombarded with information of which they only attend to a limited amount (e.g. Inman & Winer, 1998) and consequently it is essential to have an understanding for how consumers can be made to pay attention to and process particular information.

One of the main obstacles as to why it is difficult to communicate with mass audiences is due to that fact that it is difficult to capture consumers’ attention in environments that are generally cluttered with competing information (e.g. Duncan & Humphreys, 1989, 1992; Eriksen & Spencer, 1969; Jansson, Bristow, & Marlow, 2004; Nagy, Sanchez & Hughes, 1990).

Another reason as to why it is difficult to capture consumers’ attention is because it is guided by personal relevance (Shavitt, Swan, Lowrey & Wänke, 1994). If messages do not seem directly relevant to them or they have a different opinion, consumers tend to ignore the information they come across (e.g. Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

It has been found that information alone is simply not enough to change people’s behaviours to become pro-environmental (e.g. Jamieson & VanderWerf, 1993). Hence it is essential to look at persuasive techniques that can be implemented to encourage consumers to use food products that are produced sustainably.

The aforementioned suggests that what needs to be done to ensure that consumers have an interest in and purchase sustainable food products, can be broadly put into three categories, attention, personal involvement and persuasion techniques. This report explores how previous research within the area of Consumer Psychology can be utilised to produce a clearer picture of techniques that can be implemented to persuade consumers to be more pro-environmental in their purchase outlook.

‘Grabbing’ consumers attention

2. Regardless of the situation or environment, consumers tend to notice novel elements and/or something that is unusual (Berlyne & Parham, 1968) . Though it needs to be remembered that noticeable novel stimuli are only easy to spot if they are surrounded b y what is deemed to be 'the norm '. For example, imagine th at you are handed four different leaflets about four different types of savings accounts. Three of the leaflets are of a similar size and printed mainly in bla ck and white. However, the fourth leaflet is printed on a bright green paper. In such cases the consumer is more likely to notice the green leaflet and hence read that particular leaflet.

Colour is also something that can be utilised to capture consumers’ attention (e.g. Mikellides, 1990; Wickens, 1992). The reason as to why colour is good at capturing people’s attention is because it is easily detected by our pre-attentive system (Bundesen & Pedersen, 1983). It is worth bearing in mind that the success of using a particular colour to capture consumer’s attention is dependant upon surrounding colours. So if you are hoping to use a bright red colour to attract attention to a particular product, and there are plenty of other bright red coloured products, it is unlikely that the target product will be noticed.

3. Another way to capture consumers’ attention is by making use of some form of movement. Consumers have a tendency to pay attention to anything that moves against a static background (e.g. Dannemiller, 2000; Dick, Ullman, & Sagi , 1987; McLeod, Driver & Crisp, 1988 ) . Movement tends to be a little bit more difficult to utilise in terms of capturi ng consumers' attention. The easiest way to do it is in retail environments, where you can make use of display s that somehow includes movement. That way, customers in that particular in-store situation tend to notice the display with movement rather than all the other displays.

4. The likelihood of capturing a person’s attention is also affected by where something is positioned. Research has found that the way in which humans visually search for information also guides our attention. Hence it is important to present key information in a location whereby it is rapidly spotted by the consumer. For example, if you provide consumers with leaflets about sustainable consumption, you should ensure that the most vital information is presented in the middle of the page. This being that it is generally the first spot that people look at. They then go on to search for further information in the same fashion as when we read (e.g. Jansson, Bristow & Marlow, 2004; Megaw & Richardson, 1979), i.e. they start in the top left corner, then scan towards the right (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Common visual search pattern in westernised societies

Figure 1 demonstrates how most individuals conduct their visual searches. Starting off by focusing upon the middle point, the individual can then also register the immediate surroundings (the central rectangular lined area). They then shift their eyes towards the top left and continue to search in a similar fashion to the process of reading.

5. Elements that are large, bright, colourful, have an unusual shape or blinking can override the visual search process, in that it may automatically guide a person's attention to it. In such cases they may not make use of the usual visual search pattern (R oggeveen, Kingstone, & Enns, 2003) . For example, if you wish to draw an individual's attention towards something in particular on a leaflet, it may be a good idea to put it in a very bright coloured textbox that stands out from the rest of the leaflet. Similarly , within a cluttered retail environment you may wish to m ake your display larger than the others in order to draw the consumer's attention to it.

However, it is important that the unusual or vivid imagery used is consistent with the message itself (Smith & Shaffer, 2000). If it is not congruent with the sustainable message it may simply distract the consumer away from the message itself.

Try to get people involved

6. What actually captures a consumer's attention is also determined by other factors, suc h as w hat the consumer has a particular interest in . Such interests subconsciously guide the search process. If a consumer has a specific goal to start off with, that will affect the types of cues the consumer will pay attention to (Shavitt, Swan, Lowrey & Wänke, 1994). For example, when consumers have an initial preference for a brand, they pay more attention to information that con firm why they like the brand tha n they do to information that is inconsistent with why they like it (Chernev, 2001). It is generally also much more difficult (and at times impossible) to persuade consumers to do something if initially there is a big discrepancy between their original viewpoint or beliefs and a new idea presented to them (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) .

One way of getting people involved can be by involving them in in some way, such as in the planning of a project ( Oskamp, Williams, Unipan, Steers, Mainieri, & Kurland , 1994) . For example, cities with higher rates of recycling participation and waste stream diversion have been found to place more emphasis on citizen involvement in both program design decisions and program participation (e.g. Oskamp et al., 1994).

A different type of involvement may also be achieved by using emotionally charged persuasive messages (e.g. Dahl, Frankenberger & Manchanda, 2003; King & Reid, 1990 ; Petty, 1995 ) . If messages relate to something consumers care about, they are more likely to take action. It may be that emotional appeals can be used to create feelings of moral obligations, which can act as a powerful motivator to get consumers to engage in environmentally friendly behaviours (e.g. Hopper & Nielson, 1991; Stern & Dietz, 1994; Stern, Dietz, & Black, 1986; Vinning & Ebreo, 1992).

Persuasive techniques

7. Personal relevance has the capacity to ensure that people think more extensively about the products that are being marketed. There has been a lot written about how you make consumers think about information presented to them (e.g. Cialdini, Petty & Cacioppo, 1981; Petty & Cacioppo, 1979; Petty, & Cacioppo, 1996; Petty, Cacioppo & Goldman, 1981 ). The literature proposes that to ensure that the message is fully processed and understood you should ensure that it is personally relevant, make people feel it is important and make them feel personally responsible.

a. Personal relevance

Personal relevance has been found to be a fundamental variable that influences elaboration. A persuasive message should be presented in such a way as to increase perceptions of involvement, by use of personal relevance. On a superficial level it is possible to make a message personally relevant by using words such as 'you' as supposed to 'one' or 'people'. A famous example that plays on words in order to make the message personally relevant are the National Lottery adverts screened on television using the slogan 'It could be you'.

The best way to ensure that the message is personally relevant is to get to know your target market. Create a clear profile of the audience you are trying to reach. Research factors such as race, ethnic background, marital status, educational levels, and the kind of activities they participate in. By using such information you can analyse consumers' values, needs and already existing attitudes that are likely to affect their motivation to purchase particular items or services. It is particularly important to remember that various racial and ethnic groups do not respond uniformly to persuasive messages.

Using personally relevant information, perhaps by referring to a particular group of people, with which a person identifies, increase s the likelihood of a consumer response. This was shown in a study whereby salespeople gave one of two pitches about cable TV to prospective customers. One sales presentation was the one normally used and the second one had been made more vivid and personal. During the personal pitch, people were asked to conjure up images of themselves watching a broader range of entertainment in their living rooms. The study found that people who heard the more personal appeal were more likely to install the cable TV (Yates and Aronson, 1983).

b. Make them think it is important

Providing consumers with examples of why the message is important can make them want to engage further with the persuasive message. Simply telling them that it is important is not enough. So if you are trying to make consumers focus on a message that is trying to convince them to save money for Christmas, also let them know why it is important. Perhaps you wish to remind them that it is easier to spread the cost across the year, as you then do not have to take out a loan just before Christmas in order to pay for everything.

c. Make them feel personally responsible

Personal responsibility is also another factor that can help consumers elaborate upon a message. Giving consumers clear examples of why this is directly relevant to them can make them take a further interest in the persuasive message. Stating that saving for Christmas now can be the solution to ensure that your children will get the presents that they wish for, may make feel a mother of two that she needs to act in a responsible way in order to make her kids happy. The outcome being that she pays attention to the rest of the message.

Ensure that the person/company that provide s the information is credible

8. When presenting consumers with information about sustainability it is essential that it comes from what is deemed to be a credible source. Research has shown that the effectiveness of a message depends directly on the credibility of the message’s source (e.g. Costanzo, Archer, Aronson, & Pettigrew, 1986; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). For example, Craig and McCann (1978) found that requests to find out more about how to save energy almost doubled when information was sent out from a state public service commission as opposed to a private electricity company. The tenants who had been sent information from the public service commission also reduced their energy consumption more.

Bearing in mind that credibility of the source is important it is useful to make use of organisations, groups etc that already have support and credibility. The groups may be smaller in size such as a football club or a church, but equally a larger organisation such as The Co-operative, can be useful in persuading consumers.

Use of incentives

9. Positively reinforcing people’s behaviour has repeatedly been found to be an effective way to increase the likelihood of a behaviour happening again (Skinner, 1953). To positively reinforce someone’s behaviour means that you are somehow rewarding them for what they have just done (see table 1 on the following page for examples of positive reinforcement). A good reinforcer will be something that individuals like (Premack, 1959). Positive reinforcement generally works best when consumers are already using products and services.

Rewards can be classified into two types, primary and secondary (Rothschild & Gaidis, 2002). Primary reinforcers are something that provides instant gratification, such as when purchasing one product you get another one for free. Whilst secondary reinforcers are not instantly advantageous. Examples include tokens and coupons. Because there is usually a time delay between receiving a token and the time that it is redeemed, it reduces the likelihood that consumers will utilise the token. Secondary reinforcers generally become valuable over time as the consumer learns that they can be converted into a primary reinforcer (turning tokens into products). However, secondary reinforcers are rarely as successful as primary reinforcers when it comes to encouraging repeat behaviour (e.g. repeat purchase).

Table 1. Examples of positive reinforcement



Behavioural change

A family purchase fish that is identified to be from a sustainable source.

As a result of purchasing the fish, the family receives a hundred bonus points on their reward card.

Hence, the family is likely to purchase the sustainably sourced fish again.

A woman buys two apples.

She also gets one apple for free.

As a result, the woman is likely to purchase those particular apples again.

A child eats a muffin.

It tastes great.

The child is therefore likely to purchase the same brand of muffin again.

10. Incentives are great at changing peoples’ behaviour but it is worth noting that if an incentive is removed after only a short time period, the original behaviour may be reinstated (Geller, Davis & Spicer, 1983). Equally, if the incentive is substantial in nature, it may lead a consumer to think that the reward is the motivation for the behaviour. Hence, once the incentive is removed again people may stop the desired behaviour (Jamieson & VanderWerf, 1993).

In order to ensure that the desired behaviour does not decrease, it is best to either keep the reward scheme going for a long time, so that the behaviour becomes habitual, or ensure that it is not taken away at all after a set period of time, like supermarket reward schemes and cards.

What should be avoided is to punish consumers for engaging in non sustainable consumption. This is just because humans have a preference for good things happening to them.

Is it worth just trying to change peoples’ attitudes?

11. Clearly it is always beneficial if people have a positive attitude towards sustainable consumption. Research has found that there is a link between ‘environmentally friendly consumption’ and positively held attitudes towards concepts such as sustainability (Tanner & Wölfing Kast, 2003). However, changing peoples’ attitudes can be both costly and time consuming, and more importantly there are few guarantees in that changed attitudes always change behaviours (e.g. Balderjahn, 1988; Hines, Hungerford & Tomera, 1987). It seems that only in cases whereby consumers have very strongly held attitudes is it likely that it will influence their behaviours (e.g. Fazio & Zanna, 1978) and even then there is no guarantee. As Costanzo, Archer, Aronson, and Pettigrew (1986) found that people who stated that conservation was the most important strategy for improving our energy future, were not any more likely to engage in energy-conserving behaviours.

Peoples’ purchase decisions are more likely to be determined by contextual factors. However, if attempting to change consumer attitudes it is worth noting that attitudes that are formed as a result of a direct experience have been found to correlate more strongly with behaviour than those that are the result of indirect experiences (e.g. Doll & Ajzen, 1992). For example, tasting a tasty sustainable farmed food product is more likely to predict future likelihood of purchase than if they had only heard about it.

‘Frame’ the information in the correct way

12. It is well established that by framing information in a certain way it is possible to generate a more preferable response from consumers (e.g. Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). By presenting information in terms of gains vs. not gain, or losses vs. no loss (Idson, Liberman & Higgins, 2000; Lee & Aaker, 2004; Monga & Zhu, 2005) it is possible to manipulate consumer preferences (e.g. Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler, 1986). It is an efficient tool because people generate perceptions that are consistent with a frame that is directly influenced by the information specific to a particular environment (Kahneman, 2002). For example, golfers thinks it is fair if a golf course charges a regular price for ‘prime time’ slots and offer a 20 per cent discount at other times. However, they do not think it is fair if the golf course charges 20 per cent premium for the ‘prime time’ slots and a regular price at other times (Kimes & Wirtz, 2003).

Possible barriers for sustainable consumption

13. It is important to recognise that there may be a number of obstacles that may prevent people from participating in sustainable consumption. The cost of purchasing sustainable goods can be a factor why not all consumers can purchase sustainable products. Another difficulty to be overcome is that the consumer must be convinced that their behaviour has a genuine impact when it comes to sustainability (Roberts, 1996). If they fail to see how purchasing certain products will help the environment they are unlikely to purchase them. It is also essential that sustainable products are readily available to consumers. If they are difficult to find or can only be purchased from less accessible stores, they are consequently less likely to be bought.

Other factors may include that people fail to recognise that it is important, don’t know what to do, do not consider it to be a priority or think it is too difficult. In order to be able to get the consumer to want to purchase sustainable food products, the first hurdle to be overcome is to identify what the possible obstacles are.

Limit the amount of information given to consumers

14. On a final note it is worth pointing out that consumers have limited cognitive capacity to attend to information encountered. Consumers simply cannot attend to all product-related information they are exposed to. Hence , it is best to only provide consumers with the most essential information. Providing consumers with too much information can lead to the consumer walking off without having taken any of the information in. Let us say that you have managed to 'grab' a consumer's attention by making use of a vivid stimulus. The consumer then decides to take a closer look and finds that single product contains endless information about what it can be used for. The consumer finds this a bit overwhelming and walks off. The same is also applicable to leaflets and other commonly used marketing stimuli. Keep the information informative, but make sure you only include what is deemed to be essential. If a consumer is genuinely interested they will seek out further information. So for such an eventuality, it is good to mention where they can find further information by providing a phone number and/or web address, depending on who the target audience is.


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