In Honor of Earth Day - Green Marketing - Have We Gone About It All Wrong?

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In Honor of Earth Day - Green Marketing - Have We Gone About It All Wrong?

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Green Marketing - Have we gone about it all wrong? @inciteaction
Monday, April 23, 2012 - 10:00am


With Earh Day around the corner, I have been hypersensitive to the amount of chatter about Green Marketing… and what has been discussed and executed from three sources really has made me think… Perhaps we’ve gotten the messaging all wrong.

I’ll reference three articles or sources in this post:

  1. Joel Makower’s article, Green Marketing is Over.  Let’s Move On (Full Article)
  2. OgilvyEarth’s Executive Summary of their report: Mainstream Green: Moving Sustainability from Niche to Normal (Full Article)
  3. Creative ads from the “Wasting Water is Weird” campaign – (see all the ads here)

Let’s talk about messaging first.  In today’s hyper-connected tech world, consumers are hit by up to 4,000 marketing messages a day.  In order to cut through all that clutter, marketers have used three main tactics to reach folks with ”green” or “environmental” messages: Save Money, Save the Earth (mostly energy efficiency products); Use of Humor (see TV ad above at "Wasting Water is Weird" – or at least I think it is funny) or; appeal to an altruistic sense either “do the right thing” or “do this for your kids” (legacy messaging).  

So let’s examine the first tactic.  While it is true that many energy efficiency products will save you money in the long run, they often require higher out of pocket expenses up front and only realize their cost savings over a set period of time.  Now if we are talking about consumer products and exclusive or unknown “green” product lines, those products are often more expensive than their non-green equivalents and/or are often inferior in quality or effectiveness. 

At the BECC conference last year in Washington, D.C., they presented some focus group results regarding the Energy Star brand.  While the Energy Star program has four main components, what they are probably best known for is basically ”the Good Housekeeping” seal of approval service for electronics and home appliances.  They asked the focus groups what was the most important factor in purchasing an Energy Star product – and to no one’s surprise it was – price.  But deeper than that, is an insight from the Mainstream Green study: 

“The number-one barrier Americans claimed was holding them back from more sustainable behaviors was money. The price premium many eco-friendly products carry over “regular” products is not just a financial barrier; it also says to the regular consumer, “this is for someone sophisticated, someone rich…not you.” 

“Marketing has inadvertently been positioning the category as niche rather than mainstream, sending the Middle the signal that it is “not for them.” We don’t market Budweiser the same way we market Stella Artois, so why are we trying to motivate the Green Middle with the same tactics we use for the highly motivated Super Green niche? As marketers know, you can’t motivate a mass movement with niche marketing.” – OgilvyEarth

That insight is truly valuable.  We have to market “green” as “normal” not something elitist.  But the only way to support that is if those products are indeed practical and economical.  What’s interesting is that many companies are actually doing quite a lot to reduce their impact on the environment, but they are not marketing it or trying to claim credit for it.  They are simply doing it because it saves the company money.

“Companies are making significant, sometimes dramatic, changes in how they produce what they sell. I can assure you that almost none of these commitments and achievements is going to show up in product marketing materials or ads. If anything, they’ll be mentioned deep in a corporate website or buried in an environmental report. They’re not being done to sell more stuff. They’re being done because they cut costs, eliminate waste and inefficiency, improve quality and engage employees. That is, for sound business reasons.  Are these companies green, or even good? Not likely. But they’re making a bigger positive impact than most consumers will ever know. – Joel Makower

The even larger piece of the puzzle here is that these companies would rather NOT market their “green” efforts as such so as not to expose themselves to the scrutiny of the public and risk the label of “greenwashing.”

Key takeaway: Scrap the approach that “Green” is somehow not normal.  Instead, point out that the product is effective and cost efficient – oh and by the way – it’s also good for the environment.

Moving on to the issue of “legacy” marketing – here is yet another quote from Makeower:

Too often, green marketers have attempted to prod consumers to act by relying on guilt or by encouraging people to “save the Earth,” neither of which has turned out to be particularly aspirational or appealing. Green marketing creates a false sense of engagement and action — that we can simply shop our way to environmental health. And it often creates an excuse for consumers to not do more. We all know (or are related to) someone who, consciously or not, believes that buying organic foods, recycling newspapers or driving a hybrid car offsets the rest of their personal environmental impact. That is, doing these things somehow makes the world safe for their other purchases, lifestyle and travel choices. Of course, it doesn’t. 

Yes, we all know we should do the right thing, but there’s that gap again between knowing and actually doing.  And we’ve covered the subject of cause marketing actually hurting causes due to non-transparency issues.  Another great incite from the Mainstream Green report actually points out that when one becomes aware of all the harm and dire circumstances caused by climate change, instead of wanting to “do the right thing” and fix the situation, we really just want to go back to ignorance…

Green is a major mood kill. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel guiltier “the more they know” about how to live a sustainable lifestyle. Super Greens feel twice the guilt as the average American. People told us they feel guilty about everything from their flat screen TV to their Sunday paper to their Christmas tree. Flooded with guilt, they want to retreat to the comfort of ignorance. Now that we understand this, we can see where sustainability marketing has gone wrong. People don’t need to know about the state of polar bears in the Arctic to turn off the lights — paradoxically, it may be stopping them from doing so.

Key takeaway: Scrap the “do the right thing” or “do it for you kids” legacy messaging.

So finally, let’s put the humor back into the equation and lighten up.  I bring up the Wasting Water is Weird campaign once again simply because I believe it strikes all the right chords for “Green” marketing (okay, conservation marketing to be specific).  It uses humor to cut through the clutter.  It positions conservation as “normal” and wasting as “weird.”  And, most importantly, in a 30 second spot, it educates consumers with specific examples of how they can actually conserve water.  I bet you will think twice about keeping the faucet running while brushing your teeth after watching the that video, or running the dishwasher near empty after watching that video.


Nick Cavarra
+1 (818) 238-6630
Incite - Social Impact Marketing
Keywords: Events, Media & Communications | BECC Conference | Events, Media & Communications | Green Marketing | Wasting Water is Weird | earth day