What The Intention-Action Gap Means for Brands

We’ve all been there: excited and passionate to do something and then…we don’t do it. Often this can be seen with forgotten New Year’s Resolutions, unopened books, and abandoned gym memberships. 

This phenomenon, defined by behavioral psychologists as the “intention-action gap,”  has been a challenge for marketers, who know all-too-well that enthusiastic consumers in surveys and focus groups don’t always translate into in-market purchases. As the idiom goes, talk is cheap. 

One example of the intention-action gap can be observed in a 2017 study by BBMG and GlobeScan, which revealed that while 65 percent of respondents state that they want to buy sustainability-advocating purpose-driven brands, only 26 percent carry through. 

Why is this the case? The reality is that most consumers will prioritise the familiar and convenient over sustainability. This is prevalent in a Coca-Cola statement that though single-use plastic is known to be harmful, there is still strong consumer demand because it is convenient, lightweight, and has inexpensive qualities. 

From a scientific standpoint within the context of behavioural economics, we are pre-wired with a number of biases to be reluctant towards change and disruption.

The present bias is about enjoying the ‘now,’ leading people to favor short-term over long-term rewards. It’s the reason that governments are putting efforts into nudging citizens towards savings and pensions, as it is much more tempting to splurge now than put away money for an intangible future. It also explains why environmentally friendly consumers were found to be significantly less likely to recycle on vacation

Along the same vein is the status quo bias, which is the preference to remain the same and resist change regardless of clear benefits and low transaction costs. As illustrated by author and journalist Sydney J. Harris, “Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.” 

In tackling these biases, it has been found that the most effective messaging is surrounding peer influence, demonstrating how the societal status quo is changing and how consumers need to “catch up” or else be left behind.

Some salient examples include:

  • 2005 study compared how San Diego residents would be motivated to decrease their household energy. They distributed custom-coded energy monitoring units which would display either financial, environmental, or neighbor electricity usage on the screen. The conclusion found that the latter peer influence had the strongest effect, decreasing energy consumption by 10 percent
  • 2012 study discovered that an additional solar panel installation within a California zip code increases probability of peer adoption within that area by 0.78 percent. 
  • Within a 2015 online shopping experiment, consumers who were told that other shoppers were buying sustainable led to a 65 percent increase in also making a sustainable purchase 

Ideally, the best way to encourage sustainable product purchasing is to change the status quo. By effect, this will override other priorities as it begins to replace existing norms. Walk in the footsteps of De Beers, who established that diamonds are the norm for engagement, and Sunkist who developed the notion that orange juice is a breakfast beverage. 

Of course, this is a tall order. However, brands can apply a number of strategies to nudge consumers in a sustainable direction:

  • Build momentum within marketing via peer influence e.g, influencer marketing, social media sustainability pledges, etc.
  • Retain strong communications of familiarity and convenience while leveraging sustainability as an additional benefit, rather than the primary benefit
  • Demonstrate the feasibility of a sustainable lifestyle, hence working towards status quo applications of eco-friendly practice

While the future of sustainable practices as status quo is hopefully not too far off, brands and consumers must work together to ensure this can become a reality for the mass market.