In today’s update I take a look at how a toothbrush got me thinking about the Great Bean War of ’94 and how sustainability might lead to competition through product feature reduction, rather than premium upgrades.
Of course, today’s post includes the usual news summary highlights. Today I feature news updates that cover a new Impact fund from the family office that was behind AC/DC’s music label, a tech for good VC that was acquired by a pension group, how corporates are launching green campaigns with an ambition to reach a billion consumers (this links nicely with the conclusion of my toothbrush story), plus some impact investing, ESG and chocolate stories.
In fact there is so much good stuff in the news summary, I might be over-stimulating you a bit. If you want, you can skip directly to that section.
What do Baked Beans and Sustainability Have in Common?
Feature Reduction and Sustainability
As I picked up my electric toothbrush at the weekend, I realised my son had been messing around with it, and put it on ‘feather’ mode – and, yes, that got me thinking about sustainability.
This toothbrush I held in my hand was a top-of-the-range connected toothbrush given to me as a Christmas gift. It has five different brushing modes, connects to an app which coaches you on your tooth brushing habits as well as allows you to change the colour of the light ring around the top of the brush. Like all the other toothbrushes around the sink, it is ridiculously top heavy meaning that, like the rest of them, they often topple over and fall in the sink. Why can’t toothbrush manufacturers make brushes that are wider or heavier at the bottom so they are more stable when standing, I just don’t know? But that’s not the point of this story.
I stood there wondering if any of the different functions on the toothbrush and any impact on my teeth at all. That soon led to me questioning the benefit of an electric toothbrush vs a full manual brush, so I did some research.
Guess what. It turns out there isn’t much proven benefit for electric toothbrushes versus manual. Apart from edge cases, such as those where people have reduced movement capabilities, the benefits of the electric over manual are marginal, circa 10-11% “better cleaning”.
I would argue that these findings came from controlled tests, and if I were to test my kids and their ability to clean their teeth adequately with an electric one versus a manual brush, the electric would win. Only because with the manual one they seem to move their face more than the brush.
So what has this got to do with sustainability and baked beans?
I’m glad you asked.
Why on Earth do we have things like a “connected toothbrush”? The brush doesn’t actually monitor which teeth you are brushing, or inspect your molars. All it does it provide a timer and tell you to move to the next area of your mouth. The five functions and multi-colour light ring provide no benefit other than product differentiation.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with product differentiation or creating a premium product, but my mindset has shifted in the past years and from what I read and hear, many others have as well.
Now I look at these features critically, asking the question what added benefit do they provide (none) and at what cost (some).
If there’s no benefit but there is increased cost, both in terms of cash and SDG related impact, then you know what, I’m just not bothered about the premium product, in fact I’ll shy away from it.
And this is where baked beans come in to the picture.
Baked Bean Wars
Back in the ’90s some bright spark at Tesco probably presented a Venn diagram that looked something like this.
At the intersection of a product that was cheap to acquire, with high margins, that was in everyone’s shopping basket and a common product on all supermarket shelves were beans, baked beans.
This led to what was known as the Great Baked Bean War of ’94. This price war between supermarkets saw a can of beans drop down to around £0.03. It is reported* that in some cases, supermarkets dropped 5p lower, to –£0.02! (* I take no responsibility for the ‘colourful’ language used in that link)
The tactic here was land-grab, customer acquisition, but the tactic led to a long term strategy of ‘no-frills’ products. Consumers who didn’t want to pay a premium price for features they didn’t want, such as brand names or fancy packaging, could now select lower priced no-name brands that performed (tasted) almost as good as their pricier competitors.
Sustainability and Product Feature Reduction
Whilst it is reported that 20 companies are responsible for 30% of the global carbon emissions, and they absolutely need to make major changes, in the capitalist world we currently live in, the consumer has significant power to direct change across multiple industries.
Looking forward, I see a new market dynamic forming. One where consumers awaken to the possibility that additional premium features come at a cost. Those costs include environmental, factors such as CO2 emissions, additional raw product requirements such as metals used for electric components and plastics. But these costs go further, too, there are human and societal costs of creating products with additional ‘stuff’ and lower prices, to be sold at higher margins. Also, don’t forget that creating apps and data for the sake of apps and data has a cost too, as explored in my article on IOT and sustainability here.
With this in mind, I see a new marketing war evolving, where consumers demand products with only the features they need*1 and to choose between them based on the sustainability scores*2 of those products. *3
- I know what you’ll say here, consumers don’t know what they need. Ok, but…
- This is an area that will need significant work. Even the well established standards for reporting corporate sustainability today provide questionable apples-to-apples comparability
- I don’t think I’ve used more * notes in any other article so far 😬
Businesses of all sizes will realise the necessity and consumer demand for sustainable, ethical products is moving from niche, special interest groups to the mainstream. With this we will see many more physical and digital products entice customers through transparent and independently verified sustainability criteria.
In the near term, this will be a bit “wild west” as claims are made fast and loose. But as data, measurement and standards become more accurate, accessible and open, these claims will sift the greenwasher from the genuine.
Do you agree, disagree or have an alternate opinion? Let me know in the comments or via the contact page. Similarly, if you’re a company grappling with any of these topics, I’d love to hear from you. Please do get in touch.
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