In a "greenwashed" world, consumers are skeptical of environmental marketing. But what if your green initiatives are sincere?
by Geoff Griffin
Kermit the Frog may have been right when he sang, "It's not easy being green." On the other hand, merely claiming to be "green" turns out to be pretty simple in today's marketplace. Every company is suddenly mindful of its carbon footprint in an attempt to woo a growing number of eco-conscious consumers.
One way to look at this particular confluence of marketing and environmental interests is that it shows that business can work for the common good – when customers show they are willing to buy products that contribute to that common good, of course. Another view is that this is a new and relatively unregulated area of marketing that's ripe for exploitation as anybody and everybody slaps the word "green" on their products. After all, hotels tell us they aren't washing our towels because of their commitment to the environment. A luxury car company recently came out with a hybrid version of a popular SUV that gets 20 miles to the gallon instead of 15. In fact, the term "greenwashing" has already been coined to describe such situations.
So, what does "green" mean when everybody claims it's their favorite color?
"The environmental movement is at a make-or-break point," says Holly Caughron, president and CEO of Salt Lake City advertising firm Green Rising Marketing. "It's careening upward at an amazing pace, but greenwashing, inaccuracy and false advertising could mean that customers will lose trust and faith. Concerned consumers will get exhausted if the noise is too great."
Another sad casualty of too many green claims could be that companies who made real and honest efforts to reduce their environmental impact may not be able to get their message through to their customers in an effective way. CEOs and business owners who want their companies and products to be recognized as being genuinely green can cut through the clutter by recognizing some key points about mixing environmentalism with marketing.
"Avoiding Green Marketing Myopia" was the title of a landmark 2006 article published in the journal Environment. It was written by Jacquelyn Ottman, a leading voice in the area of green advertising, and Utah State professors Edwin Stafford and Cathy Hartman (who distilled the idea in Utah CEO's September 2008 Top Line section). The crux of the article is that companies get myopic when they emphasize what the product can do for the environment over what it can do for the customer. As Stafford puts it, "We don't buy carpet cleaner to save the earth. We buy it to clean the carpet." Hartman adds, "Consumers won't buy it if they don't agree that there is a value being given to them." Therefore, it's important for the consumer to know that the product performs well or can be had at a good price, and by the way, it does it with minimal impact on the environment. "I hate to say it, but green has an awful lot of baggage to it," Stafford says, referring to the days when environmental products were seen as goofy, clunky and expensive. "That has to change. Companies need to show that environmental products are good, high-performing products."
Caughron emphasizes the need to understand the customer. She identifies three different demographics for green marketing and cautions that each one must be treated differently. "Dark Greens" and "Light Greens" are willing to allow concern for the environment to affect their buying decisions, but a third group, which Caughron has dubbed the "Anything But Greens," should be approached with a cautious and measured message. "They feel threatened by the environmental movement. They're annoyed by it," she says of the Anything But Greens, who she notes have a strong demographic presence in Utah. "You don't want to offend them. You need to ease them into it. Let them know friendly facts and emphasize what the product can do for them."
Stafford predicts "the next step in green marketing is framing green so it appeals to target markets and framing green so it can be appreciated by non-consumers." As Hartman further explains, "Framing is encouraging one interpretation over [another]. It's how you use images to create a feeling." For example, Stafford and Hartman worked on a campaign for the State of Utah to promote wind power. It was a challenge because, as Stafford describes, "In Utah, people saw wind power as a hippie, 1970s technology that failed." To get people to look beyond this initial perception, Stafford, Hartman and the state came up with red, white and blue billboards with the message that money made from wind power could be used to fund schools. "Suddenly people made the connection: wind power's going to benefit my kids," Stafford says. Or as Hartman puts it, "Zero-carbon emissions don't resonate as well as 'it will help my children.' Now the environment is getting connected to mainstream consumer values."
For Hartman, the underlying ingredient of success in any green marketing initiative is, "It always gets back to the idea of authenticity. Consumers today are very savvy, and it doesn't take long before a scam is seen for what it is." Along those same lines, Caughron emphasizes, "Marketing is a chance to share your story and connect with people. It's a long process to find a connection with an audience."
Authenticity? Connecting with an audience? If those sound like traditional marketing principles, that's because, as Caughron points out, many of those principles still apply in the world of green advertising. "It still comes down to who is your target audience, what are your goals and how are you going to connect?"
Why some firms use third-party verification to prove their eco-friendliness
One way for a company to distinguish itself in a world where everyone is claiming they've gone green is to get certification from a third party. This verifies to consumers that a business has met certain requirements. Green seems to be a growing business in its own right, with the marketplace responding to the desire of companies to give some proof of their green credentials to consumers.
That scenario is what brought Park City's EarthRight Business Institute into being as a credentialing organization. The company officially opened for business in September as an offshoot of the consulting company, Environmental Performance Group, which has been helping companies determine their current baseline environmental impact while also developing sustainability programs.
EarthRight President Rich Young recalls that with EPG, "We were working with a lot of leading companies and we kept being asked, 'What do we get when we do all of this? Is there a certification we can get?'" Young and EPG responded with an answer to "encourage people in the marketplace to do the right thing."
There are currently a variety of certification programs and seals of approval in the marketplace. "What we were seeing were a lot of product-and industry-specific certifications," Young says. "We wanted to create a certification that is applicable to organizations of all types and sizes." To that end, the EarthRight certification program offers three different levels of certification (silver, gold and green). What a company needs to do to obtain certification is generally determined by analyzing the company's current baseline, and then having them hit targets to reduce the overall environmental impact.
Young says the goal is to help companies find a starting place and then start working toward achievable goals, regardless of where that starting place might be. After all, "It's hard to knock companies for trying to do the right thing, even though they might not be doing everything right." –GG
Originally posted in the October issue of Utah CEO.