The surprising link between lively music and sustainable shopping
The catch is the same music could be used for greenwashing.
In recent years, consumers have considered sustainability a significant purchasing factor. According to a 2021 global report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the popularity of sustainable goods in Google shopping searches has increased by about 71 percent worldwide since 2016. Moreover, a 2021 survey reveals that approximately 68 percent of people in the United States said they would pay more for sustainable products—a significant increase from 56 percent in 2020.
Despite the positive attitude of consumers towards sustainable or green products, they don’t always go through with the purchase. This demonstrates a gap between their intention and actual behavior concerning sustainable consumption, also known as the “attitude-behavior gap.”
Businesses must take different approaches to address contributing factors and effectively influence consumer behavior to close this gap. According to some researchers, even the choice of music in advertisements plays a crucial role in convincing consumers to purchase a green product.
Shoppers have an attitude-behavior gap in sustainable consumption
Following through on sustainable purchases is easier said than done—especially when sustainable options are rare in your regular stores.
“It’s much easier to like something or the idea of something than it is to do something,” says Karen Winterich, Gerald I. Susman professor in sustainability at The Penn State Smeal College of Business. “It typically takes a lot more effort to engage in behavior while it’s rather effortless to say you feel favorably about it.”
In addition to effort, she adds other factors behind the attitude-behavior gap, such as time, money, and lack of habits. Consumers might not always be willing and able to commit their resources to sustainable consumption or simply forget.
Sometimes, individuals don’t have the access or infrastructure to engage in sustainable behaviors. For instance, if a concert venue restricts people from bringing reusable water bottles or does not provide any refilling stations, consumers may be forced to purchase bottled water. Their behavior won’t match their attitude, says Winterich.
The lack of appropriate product labels or brand information is another factor, says Haiming Hang, associate professor of marketing at the University of Bath. Lastly, consumers may be reluctant to change their shopping habits.
Music affects consumer behavior and influences purchasing intention
However, advertising can play a key role in convincing someone that a product is green—and that they should purchase it. In one 2022 study published in the European Journal of Marketing, researchers found that using major-mode music with a fast tempo in advertising helps consumers put their good intentions to practice.
Modes are scale patterns with different melodic characteristics. The tempo, on the other hand, is the speed of a piece. Often, major scales are associated with happiness, while minor scales are more melancholy. “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music is a typical example of music on a major scale.
To examine how music can affect consumers’ purchase intentions, the authors created four radio advertisements each for two fictitious eco-friendly products—an electric car and a reusable coffee mug. Each product had an ad that used three kinds of background music and one that had no music at all. “In our research, we used ‘fake’ brands because we are not aware [of] any green brands or products using major mode music at a fast tempo in their advertising,” says Hang, one of the study authors.
But this isn’t the first time music and sound has been studied in advertising.
Based on their experiments, Hang and his coauthors found that music with a major scale pattern going over 94 beats per minute reduced the attitude-behavior gap by about 40 to 50 percent compared to the alternatives, regardless of the advertised product or the consumers’ music background. A lack of music or adder, slower, and more fearful music didn’t have the same impact.
“In other words, we argue advertising music can play a vital role in driving consumers to purchase green products via increasing their brand evaluations,” says Hang.
According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, differences in the sound of a person’s voice or a piece of background music influence consumers’ perceptions of product attributes. For instance, a lower pitch in voice or music can make consumers imagine a larger product size. A 2021 study also found that an advertisement with background music evokes stronger consumer purchase intention than the same advertisement that only uses narration.
Still, advertising is perfect. What you see on TV or hear about on the radio may be a little different than what actually ends up in your shopping cart. And this is especially true when it comes to products defined as sustainable or green. The scope of the study only focused on green products, but what makes a product “green” may vary from person to person.
Companies may also use musical advertising cues for greenwashing, a marketing practice where companies mislead consumers about the environmental benefits or sustainability of a particular product or service. Dozens of companies have faced criticism due to covering up less-than-green factors about their products and falsely enlarging claims of environmental friendliness.
Ads may use music to appeal to the consumer so they’ll feel more optimistic about the brand, even though they don’t receive factual and complete information about their purported environmental performance.
“At a general level, given how music can impact feelings or emotions,” Winterich, who was not involved in the study, says. “Consumers may not recognize their feeling is caused by the music, which can lead the [effect] from the music to carryover to impact their product attitude and behavior.”
Businesses can do more to overcome the barriers to sustainable purchasing
It’s crucial to focus on reducing consumers’ barriers to sustainable consumption so that the purchase of green products doesn’t depend on the consumers’ attitude towards green products.
“Even if someone doesn’t have a very strong attitude toward sustainable consumption, they may still engage in sustainable behavior because it’s more convenient, cheaper, or more popular than the traditional alternative,” says Winterich. “This removal of barriers and emphasis on benefits should hold more promise than just focusing on closing the gap.”
For instance, companies should make it more convenient for consumers to engage in sustainable behaviors. Starbucks pledged to shift away from single-use plastics and provide easy access to personal or store-provided reusable to-go cups by 2025. To be successful, however, companies need to ensure that they set up the infrastructure to make it easy for consumers to get on board with it, says Winterich.
It’s also important to destroy the common notion that “sustainable” always means “expensive.” Even if the price of a product is only higher because it is more durable and long-lasting, the cost may deter consumers from purchasing it unless the company can demonstrate that they are saving money over time, says Winterich. Consumers are also more likely to participate in sustainability initiatives—like take-back programs for reuse or recycling—when businesses acknowledge consumer participation because it makes them feel more like a partner with the company, she adds.
Ultimately, product advertising—which includes the music that businesses use—is only worth so much if companies don’t practice sustainable behavior themselves.
“If companies aren’t going to take the necessary sustainable action,” says Winterich, “they should not be placing the pressure on consumers to do so.”