Most people have gotten used to all the plastic products that they use nowadays. They are used to plastic shampoo bottles, plastic toothbrushes, plastic hairbrushes, plastic razors, body lotion in plastic tubes, etc. The list is almost endless. These plastic products work just fine for them. If there was no plastic pollution problem, the thought of using less plastics wouldn’t even cross their mind, and it maybe still doesn’t. So how do you get these people, the mass of your market, to change their consumption pattern? How do you get them to go plastic free?
The answer to this question really depends on the psychological barriers that your target group encounters. But there are some “more general” psychological barriers involved, namely uncertainty and skepticism towards plastic free products, that we will briefly discuss here.
The uncertainty tax and how to deal with it
Let’s imagine that you are brushing your teeth at night. You’ve just seen an ad on Instagram about plastic free toothpaste and when you are brushing your teeth (with your plastic toothbrush and toothpaste) you consider trying out the plastic free toothpaste for a change. You have used the toothpaste that comes in the plastic tube for years and it works just fine. You always use the same brand, same tube, same taste. It’s not spectacular, but you’re simply satisfied and you’ve never had any reason to try a different kind of toothpaste. And now, you have a decision to make.
Scientists have run several studies where people get to choose between a certain, good thing and an uncertain but potentially better (but maybe worse) thing. What would you choose? If you are like most people, you would probably stick with your goold old plastic tube of toothpaste. But why is that?
This has to do with the fact that change almost always involves some degree of uncertainty. People really dislike uncertainty. Jonah Berger has written a complete chapter about uncertainty in his book ‘The Catalyst’. He calls the devaluing of things that are uncertain the “uncertainty tax”. When choosing between a sure thing and a risky one, the risky option needs to be considerably better in order to be picked over the certain option, even if it is (on average) a better decision. People are inherently risk averse. Consequently, the more change involves uncertainty, the less interested people are in changing. The more ambiguity there is around a product, the less valuable that product becomes.
One way you can deal with feelings of uncertainty, is to work with triability. Simply put, triability is how easy it is for consumers to try something. Jonah Berger states that the easier it is to try something, the lower the levels of uncertainty and the faster it catches on. It makes it easier for people to experience and evaluate new things.
A really practical example of triability is sampling. You’ve probably tried out a new salad in your local supermarket once, or got to taste the new Coca-Cola flavor when it was handed out in the city center for free. By giving consumers free samples of your new product, you lower the barrier for consumers to get acquainted with your product. And hopefully, you make them enthusiastic to buy it.
And then there’s also skepticism
When switching towards plastic free, consumers can be confronted with a whole different type of product than they are used to. Consumers can be sceptical about the new product, as well as about the message that comes with it. Within the field of social psychology and behavioral change, skepticism is considered a type of resistance. It’s a form of resistance towards the content of your message or the actual working of your product. Consumers doubt whether what you are saying is true or whether you are sincere.
‘I don’t know if this plastic free product is really better than my regular toothpaste’
‘Am I really making a difference with this little change?’
Additionally, consumers can be skeptical towards the messenger. In a commercial setting the messenger will be the brand. The result is that it’s easier to try out the new plastic free toothpaste from Colgate than from the more unknown brand Smyle. Consumers don’t have previous experiences to rely on with Smyle. So they don’t know whether the brand is sincere, whether they deliver on their promises, and whether it suits their personal needs, as does Colgate, the brand they use now.
To overcome or avoid skepticism, you can work with guarantees. By offering guarantees, you eliminate uncertainty in the mind of your customer.
A good example of the usage of guarantees can be found at Walmart. They let their customers return products they are not satisfied with for a long period of time, without a lot of requirements, terms or constraints. This easy return policy lowers the barrier for customers to try products, even when they are not sure whether they will be satisfied with them. Consumers can always reverse the decision they’ve made. However, we see that consumers hardly ever use the guarantee procedure.
Scientific research shows that offering a lower effort return-policy can stimulate consumers to take the jump and buy that new product. Additionally, longer return time leads to less products that are actually being returned. One explanation for this second finding, can be the endowment effect. The endowment effect tells us that possessing a product, unconsciously, makes it more valuable. Research even showed that the longer you possess a product, the more you value it. When consumers have more time to decide whether or not they want to return the product they’ve bought, they get more attached to the product and therefore are less likely to actually return it.
Changing human behavior has so much more to it than just making people aware of a problem. You have to overcome psychological barriers, like uncertainty and skepticism, towards plastic free products. Fortunately, a lot of solutions and answers lie in behavioral science. Hopefully, our blogs inspire you and help you to learn more about behavioral insights and how they can work for your plastic free business.