Case Study: How Hellmann’s Used Psychology to Reduce Food Waste by 33% and What Marketers Can Learn From It

How can you make sure households waste less food? If you flip the script on how recipes work, beginning with the ingredients that you already have, you can achieve great results. Both in the kitchen and beyond!

In this article, you’ll find out:

  • Why understanding your customers’ behavioral patterns is the best place to start and how you can do it;
  • How a simple strategy rooted in psychology reduced food waste by 33%; and
  • Why you shouldn’t focus on motivating your customers, but on something completely different.
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Food waste is a rather complex problem, and there’s no one root cause. It can occur due to improper meal planning (or no planning at all), ineffective food storage, forgetfulness, overbuying, cooking habits, etc., etc. Complexity is galore! So what can a consumer goods company do? Where can they intervene most effectively?

Hellmann’s teamed up with BEworks, a behavioral science consultancy, and managed to reduce food waste by 33%. Read what behavioral insights they used, and why these insights are crucial for any marketer or product designer.

Why Do We Waste?

Hellmann’s, known for its mayonnaise and condiments, first asked BEworks to find out what lies at the core of food waste.

To establish what lies at the core of food waste, BEworks launched a survey with over 1000 representative households in Canada. The survey focused on food attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. Three key factors  predicting food waste were:

Perceived effort

The perceived effort is not about what your customers have to do, but how difficult they feel it is. It can be easily changed with the right choice of words or structure of information.

  1. Low food salience: people simply forget what food was still in their fridge.
  2. A perceived lack of time, energy, and imagination to figure out what to do with the food that’s left over.
  3. A sensitivity to suboptimal food: people throw out food that’s barely past its prime or only has a few minor blemishes.

This research strongly indicated that most people believe they already waste less than average, so it seemed pretty clear that changing beliefs about waste and reuse wasn’t going to cut it.

Research strongly indicated that most people believe they already waste less than average, so it changing beliefs about waste and reuse wasn’t going to cut it.

BEworks designed several interventions focused on overcoming those issues: helping people become more aware of the food they have, and providing a different approach for how to use up the food they have in tasty meals, even if it didn’t look super fresh.

BEworks tested over 10 different interventions online. The results showed that three of them had the potential to overcome those barriers. They decided to further test them in the real world, and this is how the ultimate winner that reduced food waste by 33% looked like.

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Perceived Effort: How Easy Things Feel Matters More Than How Easy They Really Are
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How to Unlock Your Fridge’s Potential

To evaluate the real-life impact of interventions aimed at tackling food waste, BEworks led one of the largest field experiments to date in a 5-week-long food waste study. Over 900 Canadian households with at least one child (the biggest waste group) were randomly assigned to either receive help or receive no help whatsoever.

Help came in the form of the 3+1 approach, which encouraged participants to think of meals as consisting of 3 main building blocks: 

  1. a base (e.g. potatoes, pasta, rice, etc.);
  2. a dose of fruits and/or vegetables that you need to use up;
  3. an optional protein (e.g. chicken, meat substitutes, beans, etc.); and
  4. topped off with the +1! The “1” here being whatever may add flavour to the dish. Think of dressings, spices, or whatever tickles your fancy. It doesn’t have to be complicated either. Mayo will do!

The core message of the program was that all the items in these 3 main building blocks were interchangeable. Don’t have pasta in the house? Now you’re using potatoes. Don’t have parsnips lying around? Aim for carrots! Does your chicken need to be eaten? Time to grab some sort of vegetable and some sort of base and get to cooking!

To help out even the most reluctant of chefs, BEworks made it easy, and I do mean EASY. They provided the households with a set of flexible recipes showcasing the 3+1 approach. Even the least creative among us can read and follow along.

In addition to keeping things simple, they also established just one day per week as a “Use Up Day.” Not every day. Not three days a week. Just one day where households pile together all the food that’s going out of date and make a dish out of it, using (preferably) most, if not all, of those foods. It’s a clear goal, not overdoing it, and people can, in fact, mentally prepare for it. 

Behavioral Insights Used

There are two major insights at play here. BEworks made it easy and gave clear instructions on how to perform the desired behavior. Let’s delve a bit deeper into each of them, shall we?. 

Make it (seem) easy

As the initial survey revealed, the problem didn’t lie in a lack of motivation. Nor did it lie in a lack of awareness that wasting food is bad. In all actuality, people were motivated enough and they knew that wasting food wasn’t right, but it’s difficult to actually figure out what to do with certain types of food. 

The challenge is in knowing where to start. There was too much friction that prevented people from doing the right thing. People simply didn’t know what to do with blemished food; didn’t know what recipes to use it in; and didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it either.

Friction

Everything along the customer’s journey, which is objectively a little harder than it should be. it needs to be removed to elicit a desired behavior or response.

Actually, behavioral researchers showed time and time again that if you want to change people’s behavior, all it takes is making it a little bit easier

By giving people a very simple solution on what to do with soon-to-be-expired food, BEworks not only made it easy but, most importantly, they made it feel really easy. This is a very interesting and powerful finding from behavioral science known as perceived effort. 

In brief, research revealed that often the decision of whether we do something or not doesn’t depend on how easy the behavior actually is but rather on how easy we perceive it to be. You can read more about this fascinating principle in the article How to Nudge Customers to Take Action? Lower the Perceived Effort.

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Give clear instructions

BEworks didn’t stop at making the desired behavior feel easy. They provided people with clear guidelines on what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. The flexible recipes that followed the  3+1 approach helped people go through their fridge knowing what to look for to make a meal.

Several studies showed that in order to make your message really effective, it’s not enough to point out the problem and outline the solutions. You also need to tell people exactly when and where to do it. That’s what BEworks did by establishing one day per week as Use Up Day.

A 33% reduction in waste

The main result was so huge, it’s worth mentioning twice: a 33% reduction in food waste! And it was all made possible by picking a day to use up the food they had on hand and providing them a simple approach for what they can do with that food.

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But wait, there’s more! The intervention “only” lasted 5 weeks, but results indicated that the behavioral impact persisted. 84% of participants indicated they enjoyed the program, 70% indicated that sticking to the program didn’t require too much effort (hello, perceived effort), and a follow-up taking place 2 months afterward revealed that over 64% were still using the 3+1 rule for creating their meals.

The intervention “only” lasted 5 weeks but a follow-up taking place 2 months afterwards revealed that over 64% were still using the 3+1 rule for creating their meals.

Let’s now have a look at what you as a business person should take away from this case study.

What Can Businesses Learn from This?

Very often companies make two fundamental mistakes. They think:

  1. “If I want to solve a complex problem, I need a complicated solution”
  2. “If I want to change what my customers do, I must motivate them more”

The truth is they couldn’t be further from the truth.

When you want your customers to do something, first and foremost you must understand the reasons why they're not doing what you want them to do. As BEworks showed, it isn’t necessarily a lack of motivation. It can be too much friction, high perceived effort, or some uncertainties that hold them back. 

If the reason why people aren’t doing something is that they don’t understand it, then indeed no special offer will help.

All too often, businesses fail to figure out these “why-not” and instead focus on providing even more information and more reasons to do something while also reducing prices or coming up with special offers, only to realize later down the line that none of it worked.

However, if the reason why people aren’t doing something is that they don’t understand it, don’t know how to do it, don’t see the additional benefit of doing it, or perceive the task as being too complex or too time-consuming, then indeed no special offer will help.

As this fascinating case study showed, if you find out what’s preventing customers from doing what you want them to and help them to overcome these frictions, you'll get much closer to achieving your goals.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Figure out why not. Why aren’t people doing what you want them to? What’s holding them back? Is it too much friction, uncertainty, or high perceived effort? Figuring out the “why-nots” is a necessary place to start for every successful intervention.
  • Make it (feel) easy. Try to make the desired behavior as easy as possible and, most importantly, make it feel easy.
  • Give your customers clear instructions. It’s not enough to point out a problem or outline a solution. You must give your customers clear instructions on how, where, and when they should do it. Remember we all have ambiguity aversion, meaning if something isn’t clear enough, we’ll simply avoid it.
  • Test out your solutions. BEworks experimented with over 10 different interventions in order to pick the most effective one. Don’t underestimate testing things out, because sometimes the least likely solutions turn out to be the most effective.