Idea in Brief

The Problem

Many companies overestimate consumers’ appetite for sustainable products, flooding the market with offerings that don’t sell well.

The Opportunity

By understanding how sustainability features interact with a product’s core benefits, companies can devise effective marketing strategies for different consumer segments.

The Solution

Assess whether your sustainable offering’s performance is equivalent, inferior, or superior to that of conventional alternatives. Tailor marketing messages to customers according to how they value sustainability versus traditional attributes.

When companies market the sustainability features of their offerings, they often overlook a fundamental truth: Social and environmental benefits have less impact on customers’ decisions than basic product attributes do. With any purchase, consumers are first trying to get a specific job done. Only after they find something that will help them do that job—and only if sustainability is important to them—will they look for a product that in addition confers a social or environmental advantage. No one decides to buy a chocolate bar to, say, improve the working conditions of farmers on the Ivory Coast. People buy chocolate, first and foremost, because they want to indulge in a small pleasure. No one decides to buy an electric car to prevent climate change. People buy cars because they need transportation; reducing their carbon footprint is an ancillary benefit.

A version of this article appeared in the March–April 2024 issue of Harvard Business Review.