In their award winning study, How (and Where) the Mighty Have Fallen: Branded Litter, retail researchers Cathy Parks and Stuart Roper found that the more common the product, the more it is associated with litter and this connection was particularly strong for fast-moving consumer goods like snacks, cigarettes, drinks and fast food.

The study acknowledges that easily-recognisable packaging has increasingly become a primary medium for communicating brand messages, but questions if and how these brand messages alter if the packaging becomes litter.

Ms Parker, of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School (MMUBS) and her co-author from Manchester Business School, also suggest that in future the huge burden of clearing up litter might have to be shared by the large food and drink companies.

“Companies spend huge amounts of time and money constructing messages about their products but what of the potentially negative brand messages conveyed by tonnes of litter?,” she said.

“Has the impact of such potentially negative messages been considered by brand owners and the packaging industry?”

She told edie that for the study 20 students recorded the litter they saw on their journeys between their lodgings and the university over a two week period, totalling 352 separate trips.

Walker’s Crisps topped the list with any city centre visitor having an 83% chance of seeing a discarded packet. Coca Cola and Diet Coke came second and third respectively.

Marlboro Lites came top of the tobacco brands, Stella for alcohol and McDonald’s for fast food.

But the study provides more than just an insight into the spending habits of the average Mancunian litter lout.

“It’s not surprising to see fast moving consumer goods being so prominent when it comes to litter,” said Ms Parker.

“The biggest offenders reflect the status of the brands. Coke, Walker’s, Marlboro, Stella and McDonald’s are all leaders in their respective categories.

“We argue that brands are still able to communicate a message when they are litter on the street, but we are not sure what message this is. If it is negative, it could significantly alter the way they do business.”

She said that at this stage the study did not look at how litter might affect perceptions of a product and it was still unclear whether discarded packaging could help with a product’s brand recognition after the product itself had been consumed.

“We only found one other research article that suggested that litter could damage a brand’s image,” she told edie.

“The rest of the marketing literature builds on the “more you see it the more you like it” principle. Nevertheless, all these studies assume that the brand is being seen in a pre-purchase context, like on a supermarket shelf or in an advert.

“We really don’t know how a post-purchase litter context may affect a consumer’s perception of a brand.”

The team plans to begin a follow up study in September, looking at whether litter can turn people away from a brand.

Around 300 people will be quizzed on whether they think litter reflects badly on the company that produced the packaging.

“[The experiment] has been designed to test whether there is a link between the context in which a brand is seen – ie litter – and perceptions of that brand and purchase intentions,” said Ms Parker.

“If a litter context is shown to have a negative effect that we can start to quantify this and provide this evidence to CSR departments.

“For example, it may be more cost effective for a company to spend less on traditional forms of advertising their product pre-purchase and spend the money educating consumers to put the litter in the bin or co-funding litter collection, if the negative effect of seeing a brand as litter is stronger than the positive effect of seeing it in a pre-puchase context.”

How (and Where) the Mighty Have Fallen: Branded Litter won the best paper award at the annual Academy of Marketing Conference in London this month.

Sam Bond

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