How to run insightful sustainability research in B2B markets

How to run insightful sustainability research in B2B markets

With sustainability now a major socio-political topic, it has the potential to transform business practices in both the short and long term.

But with so much noise around sustainability dos and don’ts, it’s tough to know exactly what customers expect from you.

So, how do you get research insights that cut through the noise, giving you what you need to inform your business decisions?

Make the right moves and you could capitalize on a major growth opportunity. But miss the mark and your initiatives could fall flat, or worse – accusations of greenwashing may come your way.

Business-to-business customers are more likely than consumers to buy from firms with a strong ESG stance, according to recent research from the American Marketing Association.

Their Future of Marketing report also says 73% of business-to-business buyers would pay more from companies with a strong purpose, compared to 48% of consumers.

Furthermore, McKinsey claims that the best ESG performers see faster growth and have at least 10% higher company valuations.

However, since it’s now so common for companies to make sustainability claims, it’s very difficult to stand out from the crowd. 

On top of that, many customers are skeptical about companies’ claims – often, justifiably. Increasingly, industry analysts and third parties challenge sustainability marketing content.

For example, international research from the Competition and Markets Authority found that 40% of ‘green’ claims made online could be misleading. 

And in Europe, the majority of €70 billion in sustainability pledge-linked bonds sold by companies to investors could be attempts at greenwashing, according to Bloomberg.

Overall, managing your sustainability reputation presents a similar challenge to managing a strong brand.

Even if you’re the most sustainable company in your sector, how sustainable your customers think you are will ultimately define your reputation. 

As with your brand, perception is reality. Perceptions exist that you can’t control, but you can manage them.

A good starting point is to understand exactly what your customers think about sustainability. 

What role does it have in their choice of product or provider? What do they think about your sustainability claims?

You can use the insights to inform a wide range of decisions – whether you’re looking to tailor marketing strategy elements, track your brand, design a new product, or enter a new market.

The benefits of researching your customers’ stance on sustainability can include:

  • Understanding its role in product or provider choice
  • Finding out how customers view your sustainability credentials
  • Seeing how customers rate competitors on sustainability
  • Learning how to improve brand perceptions
  • Discovering unmet needs for more sustainable products
  • Targeting green marketing strategies more effectively

 

 

Contents

Researching how your buyers think about sustainability

Best practices for insightful sustainability research

Researching how your buyers think about sustainability

Getting insightful data about your target audience’s views on sustainability isn’t as simple as you might think. 

There are a few traps you can fall into that will limit the usefulness of your research unless you avoid them.

Sustainability studies also tend to be more valuable if you can filter the results by relevant segments. What do your high-priority customers think about sustainability?

When designing sustainability research, keep the following in mind:

  • Link sustainability questions to your customers’ needs
  • Don’t just focus on environmental sustainability
  • Look for different views among your buyers and end-users
  • Consider analyzing the findings by generational differences

Taking each of these in turn:

#1 Link sustainability questions to your customers’ needs

A common trap in sustainability research is to spend too long asking customers about their general views on the topic.

Questioning should focus on how their attitudes toward sustainability influence their choice of provider, their purchase process, their product usage habits, etc.

Keep in mind your customers’ needs or jobs-to-be-done and find out where sustainability sits in their list of priorities. Then, explore how you can add value.

It could be straightforward – you may find a link between brand affinity and your performance around sustainability. However, it’s more likely you’ll need to explore the value chain in detail to find the answers you’re looking for.

The true value may not lie in reducing your carbon footprint, for instance. Instead, it may lie in reducing the carbon emissions of your supply chain, or that of your customers – or even their customers.

You can use research to identify opportunities and evaluate customer demand, as well as their willingness to pay. Ultimately, you’ll also need to weigh all this up against the size of the impact, your costs, and how long an opportunity will take to execute.

#2 Don’t just focus on environmental sustainability

Another common trap is to only think about sustainability in terms of the environment.

The UN has 17 sustainable development goals including other areas such as education, equality, global poverty, human rights, health, job opportunities, and infrastructure.

The 6P framework is a simpler way to think about sustainability in a business-to-business context:

  1. Planet
  2. People
  3. Product
  4. Packaging
  5. Profit
  6. Promotion of green practices

All six may not be relevant to your sector, in which case many businesses prioritize the 3Ps – planet, people, and profit:

  1. Planet: environmental concerns including use of resources and transport, etc.
  2. People: social concerns including labor practices, staff welfare, fair trade, etc.
  3. Profit: economic concerns including prosperity, cash flow, job creation, etc.

Even within environmental or planet-focused sustainability, there’s a lot of factors that may be relevant to your customers.

Carbon emissions and net zero goals create the most headlines, but there’s much more to consider in some sectors. 

Considerations around biodiversity, ecology, social systems, livability, and health could all be relevant to explore in your study, for example.

In any sustainability research, decide how broad the definition should be, depending on your industry and your target audience. Ensure the questions you ask respondents cover all the areas of sustainability considerations that you need to analyze.

#3 Look for different views among decision-makers and end-users

Sometimes the buyer and end-user are the same people; that simplifies things. 

But depending on your product or service portfolio, you could be trying to convince a broad set of stakeholders to choose you over other providers:

  • Lead decision-maker
  • Decision influencers
  • Buyer
  • End-user

In some organizations, a procurement team may also be involved. For software purchases, IT will also have a say, and so on.

A typical business-to-business purchase can involve six to ten stakeholders, according to Gartner. If that’s the case in your sector, you may need to include several segments in your future research into sustainability attitudes.

For example, the end-user may prioritize convenience and efficiency criteria in a product far above everything else.

But the lead decision-maker signing off the purchase may have a target to greatly reduce their company’s carbon footprint, so they prioritize products with the best green credentials.

It’s important to know which roles are involved in decision-making units among your customers. For sustainability research, ensure the right people participate so that you’re getting the most relevant views to inform your next steps.

#4 Consider analyzing the findings by generational differences

Often, it’s an afterthought to get insights into your customers’ age in business-to-business research. However, sustainability research is one topic where there’s a strong case for it.

By 2025, Millennials may represent up to 70% of staff in the workplace, according to Oban International

Many will be in decision-making roles and when we examine sustainability research, there’s plenty of evidence this generation is more interested in sustainability than previous ones.

Gen Z is also starting to take on decision-making roles and research suggests they are the most concerned about sustainability. 

However, they may be the hardest to reach via sustainability marketing strategy elements. In the US, 88% of Gen Z say they don’t trust brands’ ESG claims, according to McKinsey

Where relevant, including age data in your future research, could provide important context for your results.

Best practices for insightful sustainability research

#1 Use qualitative research to explore customers’ needs in detail

When weighing up whether to use quantitative vs qualitative research, many stakeholders are more comfortable with the statistical and robust nature of the former methodology.

Budget permitting, using both is ideal. Either way, qualitative research is a very insightful way to explore the impact of sustainability issues on your customers’ decision-making.

Qualitative research gives you a deeper, more detailed understanding of a topic. 

You’ll learn how and why sustainability considerations impact your customers’ buying decisions. That understanding will help inform what you do about it, in terms of industrial marketing management or sales approaches.

For example, you could map out their purchase decision-making process in detail, to see where exactly sustainability considerations come into play, and to what extent.

During depth interviews, your priority customers may also be able to outline precisely what they need from you in terms of sustainability.

#2 Factor in the impact of emotions on their decision-making

Sustainability is a highly emotive topic. It’s a social and political issue, plus much more besides. 

A lot of buyer decision-making takes place subconsciously – as much as 95%, according to How Customers Think by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman.

Traditional research tends to focus on respondents’ logic or reason in their decision-making processes. They are more aware of how their rational thinking works, so that’s what they describe when giving answers.

So, you can use projective questions to indirectly make respondents describe what truly matters most to them. For example, by asking them to imagine future or ideal scenarios.

Respondents may not understand why interviewers ask them to do these exercises. But by giving instinctive, unfiltered answers they often reveal their true motivations, biases, and emotions.

There’s plenty of evidence that emotions affect business-to-business relationships and buying behavior. For an emotive topic such as sustainability, it’s useful to get insights into how the subconscious impacts the purchase decision-making process.

#3 Watch out for overstated or exaggerated sustainability claims

For a topic like sustainability, it’s common to overstate its importance to someone, just to ‘look good’ in front of peers. 

And as mentioned, customers can’t always articulate precisely how they make their purchase decisions. Sometimes, they over-rationalize the importance of certain criteria.

In quantitative research, you can run regression analysis to see statistical connections between answers to different questions.

That way, you can analyze the derived importance of criteria, including sustainability considerations, on their supplier or product choice.

It’s another way to get data on subconscious decision-making, rather than respondents’ claimed way of thinking. You can evaluate both the functional and emotional trade-offs your buyers make in their choices.

 

Summary

Sustainability research in business-to-business markets

It’s not as if there’s limited research emphasizing sustainability and its importance to buyers. For example, 73% of business-to-business buyers would pay more from firms with strong purposes versus 48% of consumers, says the American Marketing Association.

But you need research to inform your decisions around sustainability, whether it’s to inform a business-to-business marketing strategy, new product design, or market growth plans.

Even for those with a business-to-consumer focus, the benefits of adding sustainability to your future research agenda include: understanding its role in product or provider choice; finding out how customers view your sustainability credentials; seeing how customers rate competitors; learning how to improve brand perceptions; discovering unmet needs for more sustainable products; targeting green marketing strategies more effectively.

Researching how your buyers think about sustainability

When designing sustainability research, keep the following in mind: link sustainability questions to your customers’ needs; don’t just focus on environmental sustainability; look for different views among your buyers and end-users; consider analyzing the findings by generational differences.

Best practices for sustainability research

We recommend that you: use qualitative research to explore customers’ needs in detail; factor in the impact of emotions on their decision-making; watch out for overstated or exaggerated sustainability claims.

Chris Wells
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