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Conference recap: June Cotte, Ph.D., on consumer behavior

October 15, 2012

June Cotte, Ph.D, talks with reporters after her presentation today.
June Cotte, Ph.D, talks with reporters after her presentation today.

As a speaker, June Cotte, Ph.D., knows that when audiences hear the world “science,” they often head for the exit.

“There isn’t going to be a test later,” joked Cotte at the start of her General Session this morning at the PRSA 2012 International Conference in San Francisco.

A behavioral scientist, Cotte is the George and Mary Turnbull Fellow and associate professor of marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western Ontario University.

In her presentation “When Will Consumers Pay to Be Good?” Cotte succinctly discussed her years of research on consumer behavior, specifically as it relates to green or environmentally friendly products.

“To be effectively understood, company actions need to be understood by the consumer in a way that also resonates with their own needs,” Cotte said. At the same time, the company needs to understand how consumers are different. “You need to understand the personality and demographic differences, the biases…the judgments they use to make their decisions.”

Cotte noted that peer-to-peer communication in the consumer realm is incredibly important — especially today with the continued evolution of social media.

“We always used to give word-of-mouth recommendations over the fence [in our backyards],” she said. “Except now, ‘over the fence’ is to 1 million people who are on the other side.”

Today, consumers have to be told why a product is beneficial. However, too many distractions, barriers such as a lack of time and negative opinions about a company, can impede those messages.

So what can PR professionals do to help make sure that consumers are hearing the messages from their clients and companies?

  • Focus on communications.
    “Communications have to be honest and authentic. Increasingly, people are seeing through greenwashing. If you’re doing one small ethical/CSR thing, don’t trumpet that as if it’s the best thing since sliced bread,” Cotte said. “Just be open and honest with what you’re doing. If you are doing something massive, then certainly tell that story, but you have to be clear about what it is that you’re doing.”
  • Use the positive halo.
    “If you are working for a company that has done very well in an ethical area, make sure that you reinforce that message [during] a new product launch or campaign…so that you benefit from that overall halo effect.”
  • Make the message simple and salient.
    “I come across this all the time. The claims are too confusing. There’s too much going on. If you don’t make the issue salient, consumers forget about it and revert to habit,” she said. “You want the ethical product’s information to be augmenting what [the consumer is] already buying, not replacing it. You don’t want consumers to be thinking, ‘Well, I’ll pay more, but I’m not sure if it’s that good of a product.’ You don’t want those kinds of comparisons being made, because you’ll lose. You want them to see this as a premium for added value.”

John Elsasser


June Cotte, Ph.D., on green marketing [Video]


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