Proto-Messaging in Early Research
There is sometimes the belief that to be "pure" research, it can not be tainted by the hand of messaging or marketing in any fashion. At best, this notion is somewhat idealistic, and ignores the importance of messaging to the product experience itself.
While it may be facile to say that what is in the box and what is on the box are completely separate in the mind of the consumer and are able to be tidily compartmentalized, this is rarely the case. In fact, it can be quite difficult at times to separate messaging from the customer's perception of the use experience. We will cover a body of research that underscores this in a few moments.
So while we are conducting these interviews to understand perceptions of the offering, it can be exceptionally valuable to include very early phase messaging, or "proto-messaging," if you will. Think of the goal of including a proto-message in your interview as trying to provide a very faint pencil sketch of the message, from which the user can add their interpretations, colors, and extensions. This is very much in keeping with our goals for the interviews in the first place, which is for us to say as little as possible, and gently guide participants through their own thoughts. There is one expert in the interview in regard to the use experience, and it isn't you.
The challenge in creating this "sketch", when including this proto-message in the interview, is that one wants to provide the basest of statements to react to. For this reason, we want to purposely avoid imagery, design, or visual stimulus, instead keeping to black text on a white page. In essence, the message should read as somewhat sterile, but not unfriendly, and should avoid buzzwords, brand names, etc.
Here's how we could include a proto-message in our interviews on the native grass experience:
In the last 15 minutes of the interview, you would give the participant the proto-message, and probe as you have during the rest of the interview. We would want to be especially attentive for any new ideas or associations that didn't arise in the interview of native grass.
A sample statement:
"At [Company], we want to redefine what a "healthy lawn" looks like. We believe that a healthy lawn starts with the seed, one which is adapted and native to your location. After that, nature does the rest. Not "nature and a few hundred pounds of chemicals every year," not "nature and tens of thousands of gallons of irrigation." Just nature.
Lawns are a sanctuary for families, and a place for us to be close to nature... not a science lab. Artificially dark, chemically augmented, nitrogen addicted lawns that require constant attention and bleed chemical runoff into our streams aren't the answer, but neither are lawns that look messy and unkempt.
Our goal is to redefine the American lawn by using American grasses to create healthy, beautiful, natural, and low maintenance lawns. We hope you'll join us."
We would also want to understand the participant's thoughts about anything in the proto-message that didn't "fit" their experiences, or things they didn't understand. Again, we want to use it as a stimulus and understand how they interpret it.
Research on Sustainability-Specific Messaging Challenges
While messaging can meaningfully influence the user experience and their interpretations, there is some evidence that customers will also layer in their interpretations of the company's motivation for making a sustainable or socially beneficial product.
In the following research, we see that customers will make evaluations about whether sustainability benefits were intended or unintended by the company, as well as how the performance of the product may be affected by attempts for a company to make a more "green" product. It offers four well-structured experiments, with findings that can very directly affect our work in creating sustainability-driven offerings.
Here is the Abstract, to give you a preview of the paper itself [emphasis is mine]:
Many companies offer products with social benefits that are orthogonal to performance (e.g., green products). The present studies demonstrate that information about a company’s intentions in designing the product plays an import role in consumers’ evaluations. In particular, consumers are less likely to purchase a green product when they perceive that the company intentionally made the product better for the environment compared to when the same environmental benefit occurred as an unintended side effect. This result is explained by consumers’ lay theories about resource allocation: intended (vs. unintended) green enhancements lead consumers to assume that the company diverted resources away from product quality, which in turn drives a reduction in purchase interest. The present studies also identify an important boundary condition based on the type of enhancement and show that the basic intended (vs. unintended) effect generalizes to other types of perceived tradeoffs, such as healthfulness and taste.
Please read "When Going Green Backfires: How Firm Intentions Shape the Evaluation of Socially Beneficial Product Enhancements" by George E. Newman, Margarita Gorlin, and Ravi Dhar.