Market Research in Sustainable Building Materials

We recently bid on a project in the building materials industry. To prepare our proposal we conducted more than 10 interviews with green building consultants, engineers, architects, construction firms and property management companies. It would have been a great project. Unfortunately, we did not win the bid. But we learned a few things that I thought I’d share. To protect the confidentiality of our dealings with the client, I won’t identify the product category.

The primary objectives of the study were as follows:

  1. Develop a better understanding of deciders and influencers in this category and of thought leaders in the built environment and sustainability.
  2. Learn what key terms such as “sustainability,” “green building” and “high-performance building” mean to this population.
  3. Assess this population’s reactions to a list of potential company sustainability initiatives, including
    • how positively or negatively they would rate them
    • how they affect their views of the company including its offerings and/or its brands
    • how they influence recommendations of the company’s offerings
  4. Prioritize the list of proposed sustainability initiatives based on reactions of target group as well as an analysis of the broader views of thought leaders.

Do you see why I thought it would have been a great project?

Drawing on our background research for the proposal and our prior research in sustainability, we developed some initial hypotheses and perspectives that influenced our proposed approach to the project.

We found, for instance, that the influencers of building materials purchases for any given building project can be numerous and may include facilities VPs, design engineers, architects and specialized consultants. The selection of these products is often based on the prior experience of the specifiers; preferred vendor lists; and design guideline documents that predate a specific project and are often prepared by committees at some organizations.

Degree of Influence Sustainability Executives Have over Various Corporate Functions' Sustainability Policies and Procedures

Meanwhile, a previous Green Research study on the role of corporate sustainability executives revealed that while they play a key role in defining and communicating the company’s position on sustainability, they tend to focus their efforts on a small number of high-leverage initiatives. They are more likely to guide the development of policy than to influence directly the purchase of individual materials and products. And they tend to wield only a moderate degree of influence over policies and procedures related to facilities and procurement, as the above graphic shows.

Our hypothesis is that today sustainability is not a big influencer in the category in question. Specifiers we spoke with are aware of the efforts of building products manufacturers to position their products as green. Their reactions to these claims range from interest to skepticism to the view that the claims are irrelevant. Even among sophisticated buyers and green-building thought leaders, we expected to find that sustainability considerations may not be a primary driver of product selection in this category in the near future.

In this context, we proposed a research design that would allow us to tease out the role of product sustainability versus corporate-level sustainability; to better understand the influence that company reputation may play in the product selection process; and to identify initiatives and claims that can bolster a manufacturer’s reputation without provoking negative reactions to perceived “greenwashing.”

You win some and you lose some. If you have a research need you’d like to discuss with us, please drop us a line.


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