Product reparability: durability versus reliability, what are the communication issues?
In an article originally published in French on The Conversation, Joëlle Vanhamme, EDHEC Professor, and Pauline Munten, UCLouvain researcher, look at the value of brands communicating - or not - about the reparability of their products.
Every French person produces around 5 tonnes of waste a year, including products that have broken down and are thrown away to be replaced. In 2020, only 40% of electrical and electronic appliances that broke down were repaired. Hairdryers, smartphones, dishwashers, washing machines... Most of our everyday items are affected.
Product reparability is becoming a major issue, primarily for environmental reasons. Since 2021, a reparability index has been compulsory in France for certain categories of product, to inform consumers whether or not a product is repairable at the time of purchase, and thus extend its lifespan.
However, is it really in the interest of brands to communicate on the reparability of their products? Consumer reactions remain uncertain and could even be contradictory. This is what we are trying to find out in an article recently published in the Journal of Business Research.
Reliable or unreliable, that is the question
This contradiction is explained by the two dimensions of the perception of product quality: its durability, i.e. the period of time over which the product will perform its functions effectively, and its reliability, i.e. the probability of failure.
On the one hand, the reparability of a product can be perceived positively by consumers for environmental and economic reasons, as it promises greater durability.
On the other hand, communication about repairability can be detrimental to the product if it accentuates its risk of failure in the consumer's mind and makes them think about the need for repair. Because of this second possible effect, communications about product repairability may have less positive, or even negative, effects.
This could discourage brands from communicating about reparability. Especially as offering a repairable product comes at a considerable cost, both for the brand, which has to take repair into account from the design stage, and for the consumer, who will have to pay for spare parts and labour to repair it.
A responsible dimension
To gain a better understanding, we began by carrying out three experiments on 1,269 people in France, followed by a meta-analysis. This first quantitative phase shows that brands that communicate about the repairability of their products are perceived more positively by consumers. This is explained, on the one hand, by their perception that the product will be more durable and, on the other, by their perception that the brand is behaving in a socially responsible manner.
These positive effects are particularly noticeable for brands that consumers perceive as less reliable, whether this is due to the product itself or to previous experience with this type of product. Not least, the effect of communication on repairability has never been negative, as some brands might have feared.
Empirically, this quantitative phase shows that brands can calmly communicate the repairability of their products and, in so doing, signal that their products are sustainable and that they are implementing socially responsible measures.
Strategic or altruistic motivations?
To better understand consumer perceptions and identify other factors that could influence the effectiveness of communication on reparability, we then conducted a qualitative analysis of comments posted on social networks.
While the second part of the study confirms that communication on reparability is generally perceived positively, it also highlights the importance of considering other factors, such as consumer scepticism about the true motivations of brands when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Their arguments can either be interpreted as altruistic and genuine, or on the contrary as strategic, tinged with ultra-consumerism, programmed obsolescence and profit, as these two comments posted on social networks attest:
« Expecting manufacturers who sell us programmed obsolescence to produce repairable products is just me wondering? »
« What reasons would a manufacturer have to adopt this? Benevolence? Philanthropy? I don't want to be defeatist, but if there's no bill, nothing will force manufacturers to do this. Not to mention the economic aspect. Would they be able to double or triple their prices? »
Depending on whether the consumer attributes the first or second type of motivation, the effect of communication on reparability will be more or less positive.
All in all, this study clearly shows that communication on the repairability of products remains beneficial for brands, and that the sustainability argument outweighs fears about reliability. It is therefore in the interests of companies to take the plunge, while ensuring the credibility of their CSR communications. Let's hope that this research can help them to take this step, and let's also hope that consumers will choose to have their products repaired rather than thrown away.
This article, written by Joëlle Vanhamme, EDHEC Business School Professor and Pauline Munten, Université catholique de Louvain Researcher, has been initially pusblished in French on The Conversation under Creative Commons licence. Lire l’article original.