Sustainability is Hot, But Are Brands Getting ‘Credit’ For It

Apr 22, 2021

Sustainability is rightfully top of mind for many consumers when they make purchases not just on Earth Day, but throughout the year. As many brands lean into making sustainability a core part of their company and/or brand promise, the questions are this: are consumers giving brands ‘credit’ for their sustainability efforts? And is that promise now a positive part of their experience or are the tradeoffs in performance not worth it.

Instead of surveying consumers to ask about claimed connections or getting them into a focus group room to try to extract insights, 4Sight mines user-generated content to answer these types of business challenges. While in regular course of business, 4Sight extracts thousands of data points, we often do a ‘signal’ look at sample data sources to understand if there are signals that point in a certain direction. In this case, we took a look at three CPG products that have launched recently with the promise of more sustainable delivery, and compared them to their more traditional counterparts. Our goal is to see if consumers are giving brands unsolicited ‘credit’ for their sustainability efforts. An important note: these conclusions are meant as directional in nature; we mined only one SKU for each product vs our typical mining of thousands or millions of data points.

From these product reviews we have three major takeaways:

1. Just as it has been for decades, sustainable products are only worthwhile to consumers if the product still retains its trusted efficacy.

2. Sustainable products are great but if they’re paired with plastic packaging either from the manufacturer or in the eCommerce delivery experience then it becomes nothing more than a gimmick.

3. Newly launched brands are getting ‘credit’ in sustainability mentions, but it’s still early. Further, more robust analysis would need to be done to determine if that ‘credit’ is driving improved consumer experience over time.

Colgate’s Bamboo Toothbrush

The first item we looked at was a sample of Colgate’s Bamboo Toothbrush reviews. It bills itself as having an “Eco friendly Natural Bamboo Handle”. For comparison purposes, we looked at the Colgate Extra Clean Toothbrush with a Soft Head.

Because this was one SKU from one eRetail site, the review count for the bamboo toothbrush was low, but we can see that the consumer experience is strong, and that the trend for the last few quarters is that the star rating continues to improve from its starting 4.0/5 to a 4.5/5. This is especially intriguing as Colgate’s more traditional plastic handle has seen a slight dip in star rating over the past year.

Colgate Bamboo Toothbrush V. Colgate Extra Clean Toothbrush

Review Number and Star Rating for One SKU*

Next, to see if brands were receiving ‘credit’ for their sustainability efforts, we looked at percent word mentions of certain key terms. A sample is below. Based on these signal SKUs, Colgate is getting credit for a more “Natural” toothbrush; 15% of the 120 reviews mentioned natural.

It’s important to note that these percent mentions don’t take into account the context of star rating and prevalence in reviews the way that 4Sight’s driver’s analysis does, but the other interesting key word that popped for Colgate’s Bamboo Toothbrush was “plastic”. Unfortunately for the brand, in the sample of reviews that mentioned plastic, many consumers who had bought the toothbrush specifically for the “plastic-free” handle were disheartened to note that the brushes were still packaged in a good amount of plastic, which they expressed defeated the purpose.

Net for Colgate: Consumer reaction is positive and the brand is getting ‘credit’ for a number of sustainability mentions from this small base size signal pull, but concerns remain about plastic, and consumers are still using their baseline brushing experience as the benchmark from which to compare brand performance on attributes such as ‘soft’.

Huggies New Leaf Pull-Ups

The second matchup we pulled a sample of reviews for were Huggies’ newly-launched New Leaf Pull-Ups (4Sight’s Evergreen Award Winner for Baby Care) and Huggies’ traditional Pull-Ups to again see if there are signals to indicate if the brand is getting ‘credit’ for being sustainable.

The results here were a bit less conclusive in terms of the overall performance of the signal SKUs that were pulled. It’s clear when the product launched it was very heavily reviewed on both Amazon and Walmart (we pulled reviews from both sites), with over 1,000 reviews in 2020’s Q3 alone. And the star rating was also impressively high, with 4.8/5 for the quarter. The star rating and review number both dipped in Q4, to 4.25/5 and 200, respectively. For the first quarter of 2021, both have rebounded.

When we look at “sustainability” mentions from these signal SKUs, it’s clear that the consumers are mentioning these words more for the Huggies’ New Leaf Pull Ups, especially words like “Plant (based)” and “Natural”. As we can also see from a few of the example reviews below, consumers lead with the core benefit (e.g. ‘work great’, fit, etc.) in sharing their experience and then follow with the sustainability mentions, reinforcing the point that ultimately the core brand promise needs to be met first.

Net for Huggies: Though the star rating on these signal SKUs is a bit volatile, overall the fact that consumers are rating these plant-based training pants highly means that they are delivering on their core promise. A quick review of word mentions around sustainability also makes it clear that these attributes are clearly more top-of-mind than the traditional Huggies SKU although whether or not they are drivers of purchase is something we would need to explore further.

Secret Plastic-Free, Aluminum-Free

The last set of signal products we looked at were for two deodorants: Secret Plastic-Free, Aluminum-Free and Secret Fresh Invisible Solid. The sample reviews for both SKUs were pulled from Walmart. It’s important to caveat that the review numbers for the Secret Plastic-Free Deodorant are low, save for the first quarter of 2020, which means this signal pull is more directional.

For any robust analysis done by 4Sight’s team of data scientists and brand strategists, we’d need significantly more reviews to draw clearer conclusions. However it’s still interesting to look at this for what it is – a signal.

Although it is a small sample size, the consumer experience has dipped for Secret’s plastic free and aluminum free offering in review number and ratings over the course of the year, while their traditional Fresh Invisible Solid has remained more consistent, which may be a red flag.

On mentions of key sustainability words, what pops clearly are mentions of the word “natural”. Natural was used by consumers in reviews 31% of the time. This was referring less to the plastic-free packaging (noted 2% of the time) and more to the natural ingredients or the natural scent of the product.

But the scent itself was also what seemed to pull the rating down. Even when consumers were thrilled with the more eco-friendly packaging (5% of reviews mentioned the packaging of the product), if they couldn’t get over the scent then it appears that the benefit of sustainability couldn’t save the experience. Again, this is signal enough to explore this further with a larger data pull and deeper, more quantitative analytics around drivers.

Overall takeaways for Secret: the brand is clearly getting ‘credit’ for its sustainability positioning here from this small sample in terms of mentions. However, there does appear to be a tradeoff with some relative to natural in terms of the smell, something that appears to be impacting the overall performance from this signal SKU pull. A full drivers analysis paired with word correlations and N-gram analysis on a larger base size would help determine whether that ‘credit’ is a good or bad association.

From each of these signal SKU pulls, it is clear that there continues to be a mixed story: While we all know that consumers are eager for packaging and formulas that are more environmentally friendly, the “sustainability” credit the brands receive only matters to consumers if the overall brand promise is met. These ‘signal’ pulls gives us reason to go further in exploring this issue of getting ‘credit’ for being sustainable. The area to watch for, however, is how much sustainability metrics will drive brand purchase and brand experience in the future. As the conversation about climate change permeates consumers’ lives, will they be willing to trade off performance for more sustainable products? How much more weight will they put on conservation?