Three Lessons for Fulfilling on a Green Brand Promise

January 29, 2012

When it comes to the environment, consumer behavior can be inconsistent or even a bit hypocritical.  Two-car families will buy a hybrid and a gas guzzling SUV.  Parents will teach their kids to turn off the water while brushing, but take a few extra minutes in the shower to enjoy the peace and quiet.  Somehow, we tend to overlook our own inconsistencies, while holding others accountable for their actions.

Perhaps, then, it should not be surprising that consumers tend to be less forgiving of a brand’s missteps than their own.  They are quick to assume green washing regardless of good intensions.

Why is it that consumers hold green brands to a higher standard than they do themselves?

It is not an easy question to answer.  Certainly, as human beings, we have a harder time taking stock of our own actions than another’s.  But, the distinction goes further.

First, consumers turn to brands as a form of self-expression based on who they are today, or who they ideally want to be.  For consumers to do so, brands need to clearly articulate what they believe in and be consistent in how they express these beliefs.  Arguably, this is especially important for green brands, as most mainstream consumers tend to be less familiar with them or how they benefit the environment.  As a result, consumers tend to rely more heavily on green brands for guidance when making purchase decisions.

Second, consumers expect green brands to deliver on promised reductions in environmental impact.  When they don’t, consumers feel disappointed that expectations are not met, or frustrated because, despite good intensions, they are not able to make a positive impact that they anticipated.

A recent personal example:

For the past year, I have turned to OZOcar, the eco-friendly car service, to help me reduce my eco-impact from business travel.  On one recent occasion, OZOcar ran out of cars and farmed my ride out to one of several livery companies in its network.  Instead of a Prius, the vehicle that arrived was a gas-guzzling Suburban.  An eco-friendly car service providing about the least eco-friendly ride.   In marketing terms, the Suburban was off brand.

While this was not part of my typical experience with OZOcar, it offered clear lessons for all brands:

Be clear about what a brand promise is and isn’t.  Brands should set clear expectations about their brand promise.  For example, it is not unreasonable for a small company like OZOcar to send a gas-powered substitute – preferably a sedan instead of an SUV – when its fleet is being fully used.  That said, brands should clearly set expectations upfront so that consumers know what to expect and are not free to interpret perceived (or actual) inconsistencies in their own way.

Fulfill on a brand promise, or modify the promise.  A customer service manager at OZOcar did offer to change my individual profile to state that I did not want to be picked up in an SUV.  I asked if they would consider changing their policy so that their network would not send SUVs to any OZOcar customers.  They said that they would look into it.

Know how consumers perceive a brand. What matters most is not what a brand says about itself, but how consumers perceive it.  As such, marketers should stay abreast of how consumers perceive their brand by soliciting feedback during customer interactions or monitoring (and perhaps joining) online conversations in social media.  This will enable a brand to quickly adjust its messaging – or its offering – to reinforce its brand promise.


Uncharted Waters: Reframing Climate Change Around Water

October 17, 2011

Einstein is credited with saying that “everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Such words have renewed meaning when it comes to messaging about climate change as everything about it seems complex – its cause, its impact, and the challenges that humans face to address it. Just describing climate change poses a formidable challenge for communicators. Its causes are many and not necessarily intuitive to grasp.  Likewise, its impact is difficult to comprehend, especially given how interconnected Earth’s natural systems are.

Like any marketing communications challenge, consumers needs sound bites that relay information as simply as possible, but no simpler. The message needs to be relevant to their daily lives. The narrative needs to be easily digestible and sharable so that it quickly becomes part of the broader lexicon. It also needs to instill a sense of urgency, but not leave a feeling of being overwhelmed.

One possible way to address this challenge is to reframe the climate change conversation around water. This shift is necessary for many reasons:

First, the current narrative around global warming is too complex and abstract for most audiences to grasp fully: rising temperatures, melting polar ice sheets, burning rainforests, rising sea levels, and so forth. Focusing on water enables communicators to simplify the message, as water is familiar to all of us and essential for our own survival. Rather than shortchanging the complexity of climate change, communicators that narrow the message enable consumers to more easily digest it.

Second, focusing on water allows us to shift communications away from the cause of climate change to its impact. Natural water variability is expected from year to year, but overall, supplies in the US, even in the arid west, have traditionally been relatively predictable from year to year. In the current world, a “100-year” drought actually only occurs every 100 years.

Yet, climate change has already disrupted this paradigm. Today, we are shifting to a world of water volatility, where the probability of extreme droughts and floods increases dramatically. For example, in 2010, the Amazon rainforest experienced its second “100 year” drought in 5 years. When this happens, people start to pay attention.

Finally, water enables communicators to reposition global climate change as an inherently local issue. It has long been the case that consumers have had a difficult time connecting with – let alone financially supporting – global environmental issues. Redefining climate change as a local issue makes it more personal, and provides an opportunity to motivate more grassroots support for action at the local level.

Yet, today, the impact of climate change is being felt closer to home. Local communities in the US are being devastated by water – or the lack there of – from extreme droughts and wildfires across Texas to torrential rains and flooding in Vermont. Globally, the impact has arguably been more severe because people in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and even China have fewer resources to cope with it.

To this end, it is important to outline a communications construct that shifts the focus of climate change to its impact on water. Here is one approach:As communicators, we face the ongoing challenge of constructing the right narrative that engages audiences on this important issue of our time.  Simply, but no simpler.

The best way to do so is still open for discussion.

What is your approach?


Green Brand Leadership: a Fish Story

August 16, 2010

The customer is always right – so goes the mantra of every sales rep from time immemorial. But, as we know, what customers want may not be best for the planet. For some brands, this presents a dilemma: how do you satisfy consumer needs while remaining eco-responsible?

The dilemma can be quite daunting for a brand, especially if the eco-impact is caused by lifestyle choices consumers are long accustomed to. This challenge is only compounded when consumers are not yet aware that their very actions are having a detrimental effect – as no brand wants to be the bearer of bad news. Or, perhaps more challenging still, brands may find that the very behaviors and rituals that help define a brand itself turn out to perpetuate the very actions that are having a negative impact.

Whose responsibility is it to promote more sustainable consumer behaviors?

Many brands would say, it is the role of governments to regulate – and if they don’t, a corporate entity is not accountable for their failure to act. Others would say that it should be left to the discerning buyer. Should a brand itself take the lead? Some may argue yes. It is a demonstration of brand leadership, they say.

But, being out ahead of one’s customers may serve brands well only when their customers expect them to do so. Staking out a leadership position appeals to customers that want to know that they are doing good through the choices that they make.

Others may argue no. Brands sell products, not morality they might say. Worse, eco-responsible messaging may be antithetical to the experience a brand is trying to create. It is hard to enjoy pleasures guilt-free if one is constantly reminded of the impact that one is having on the planet.

But, regardless of where one nets out on this issue, one thing is clear: today, brands are increasingly left with little choice but to act – or react – whether or not their actions directly influence customer purchase decisions. Advocacy groups as well as individuals are leveraging the power of the media (and social media) to broadcast and amplify their voices to sway popular opinion.

Whether viewed as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership or take a defensive stance, it is likely that more and more brands will have to make such choices.

One example of such tension between brands and eco-decisions recently appeared in the New York Times Magazine article by Paul Greenberg, “Tuna’s End: The Fate of the Bluefin, the Oceans and Us.” (June 27, 2010), As Greenberg writes, Nobu, the internationally acclaimed sushi restaurant chain, faces a decision today over the selection of seafood that it serves.

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna – a prized fish for sushi and sashimi – is now endangered. Continued commercial fishing may push it to extinction. Further, the timing of the BP oil spill in the Gulf likely exacerbated the situation by polluting one of two known breeding grounds in the Atlantic for these fish right as mating season was to begin.

Today, Greenpeace is pressuring Nobu – in large measure because it is a category leader – to no longer serve Bluefin to its patrons. Nobu has resisted. Nobu co-owner Richie Notar noted, “The Japanese have relied on tuna and other bounties of the sea as part of their culture and history for centuries. We are absolutely appreciative of your goals and efforts within your cause, but it goes far beyond just saying that we can just taken what all of a sudden has been declared an “endangered” species off the menu. It has to do with custom, heritage and behavior.”

Arguably, Nobu’s brand identity emanates from a careful balance of adherence to the tradition and ritual of sushi – its creation, its presentation, its consumption – and hip appeal: swanky ambiance, innovative food creations and celebrity ownership. Out of balance, the brand does not deliver on the experience consumers have come to expect.

With this balance in mind, Nobu has tried to stake out a middle ground by updating its menu with the following message: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative”

Such a simple message informs patrons of the issue and then let’s each consumer make their own choice. Additionally, such phrasing invites a dialogue between the patron and server regarding food substitutes, though it is unclear as to how many patrons would be inclined to do so.

What Nobu has missed, however, is an opportunity to leverage this situation to evolve its brand appeal – keeping the balance between tradition and hip appeal while elevating each to the next level.

Nobu could find an alternative to Bluefin tuna and not jeopardize the brand, but arguably reinforce consumer perception of Nobu as hip and trendy. Greenberg asserts that what Nobu needs is a new substitute for tuna. As part of his research, he went searching for a Bluefin substitute and may have found one in a fish known as kahala. Arguably, Nobu is missing an opportunity to be one of the first to introduce kahala across its menus, reinforcing its trendy image.

Ironically, by introducing such a substitute, Nobu would not be breaking with tradition, but rather, returning to it, as Bluefin was not widely popular in sushi until just 30 years ago. It was nowhere to be found in sushi before 170 years ago.

Thus, shifting away from Bluefin and offering consumers a tasty substitute could actually enhance Nobu’s reputation for seeding new trends while maintaining close adherence to the tradition of sushi.

In this case, what is good for the brand may actually be good for the planet.


Green May Be Ho-Hum for the Holidays, But It’s Here to Stay

December 12, 2007

So far, this holiday season has seen a rather muted push on green by retailers, both in terms of the products they sell and the messages they communicate to consumers.  Marshal Cohen, Chief Industry Analyst at NPD Group, recently suggested that such lack of enthusiasm by retailers reflects waning interest in green.  Cohen stated: “It’s basically a card that a lot of people played while it was hot and trendy…and it got overplayed.”  

Indeed, early signs suggest that retailers left their Birkenstocks home for the holidays.  While most retailers are taking steps to green their operations and supply chains, few have taken steps to green the shopping experience.  Reuters recently reported that retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney recognized green as a trend but does not have plans to promote green merchandise this holiday season  (Barneys is apparently a notable exception).  A spokesman for J.C Penney added: “It’s something that is growing in importance with the customer…[but it’s in] its early days.”  

But, could it be the case that after so much hype early in the year, the green trend has faded just as it was getting off the ground? 

Marketing Green believes just the opposite: as a trend, green is just getting started.  Quite simply, the apparent lack of enthusiasm shown by retailers this holiday season reflects the fact that we are still early on the adoption curve.  Here’s why: 

Green products popular today are not necessary gift ready.  Green products that have been adopted by the mass market – including compact florescent light bulbs and hybrid cars – may not make the best stocking stuffers.  Moreover, unlike organic foods, clothes made from organic cotton have not been adopted by the mass market yet.  As such, it is not surprising that we do not see a sudden surge in demand for these items this season. 

Consumers may not equate green with spreading holiday cheer.  When it comes to giving a gift that is overtly green, consumers may worry that they may be perceived by friends and family as the Grinch.   While social norms are changing, being green today is still in many regards a personal virtue rather than societal expectation.  As such, gift-givers may fear that giving a green gift may be perceived by recipients as politicizing the holidays.   

Retailers fear being accused of greenwashing.  Today, few standards are in place to determine how green is green.  Without them, retailers are left to their own devices to determine what is eco-friendly – and, as a result, are left exposed to criticism by outsiders who may think otherwise.  As such, many retailers today are focused more on greening their internal initiatives than greening specific products. 

While interest in green may wax and wane, marketers must remember that we are still in an early adoption cycle for green.  Regardless of how successful this season is for green, as a trend, green is here to stay.  In fact, there are five global influencers that will ensure that as a trend it grows, spreads and matures.  

Changing physical environment.  While the melting of the ice caps may still be an abstract concept for most, consumers are beginning to experience erratic weather patterns that are likely – though not certainly – being caused and/or exacerbated by global warming.   Indeed, Oxfam recently reported that weather-related natural disasters have increased four-fold over the past two decades while geologic-related ones (eg, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc) have remained steady.   Such visible signs will likely increase and intensify with time, providing a constant reminder that something in our world is not in balance.   

Increasingly concerned consumers:  In the US today, consumers have a high awareness of climate change as an environmental concern, but arguably relatively low awareness of the severity of its impact – especially on the poor who are least responsible for its cause but most vulnerable to its adverse affects.  As Hans Verolme, Director of Global Climate Change Programmes for World Wildlife Fund stated, “There’s no escaping the facts: global warming will bring hunger, floods and water shortages.”

Marketers should be prepared that such a realization may cause a sea change in how American consumers view the brands that they purchase.   Americans may be voracious consumers, but they do not like to do so at other people’s expense.  As a consumer issue, therefore, climate change mitigation may be similar to enforcing fair labor laws or worker safety practices  – it is just what you do or risk a backlash from consumers. 

Leadership by business: Some may find it surprising that many global corporations are strong proponents of action on climate change.  Indeed, 150 leading companies – including US multinationals Coca-Cola, GE, Nike, Johnson & Johnson and Sun Microsystems – have already signed a communique on climate change and presented at the UN conference this month in Bali that calls for legally binding targets for carbon emissions. 

So why would global companies lead the charge?  Corporations know that mandates on carbon emissions are inevitable.  The sooner government acts to set acceptable carbon emission levels, the faster business can respond and plan for the future – by modifying capital investment decisions or commercializing new products, for example.  

Moreover, once global emission caps are put into place, standards will be developed within each product category that determine how green is green.  Without standards today, companies decide for themselves to what level they should green their products.  In this situation, the burden is on the consumer to decide how competitive products stack up while leaving well-intentioned companies vulnerable to greenwashing accusations by critics that disagree with their claims. 

Where standards have emerged though, green products have taken off.  One great example is the creation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification that set standards for green buildings.  The result: 20% growth in green buildings in 2005, followed by 30% growth in 2006.    

Watchdog role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs):  In many ways, NGOs serve as watchdogs for industry on environmental issues.  Today, such organizations enjoy increasing clout, fueled by increased membership and financial backing over the past few years.  More than ever, NGOs are flexing their muscle by challenging corporate activities that they deem as destructive to the environment or deceptive to consumers.   

Interestingly, even companies that are viewed as leaders on green do not get a pass by NGOs when activities are deemed inconsistent with their competitive positioning on green.  For example, despite (or as a result of) earmarking a combined $70 billion toward green investments and loans, both Bank of America and Citigroup were recently the target of a grassroots campaign by Rainforest Action Network to the fact that these banks also fund coal-fired plants, a primary contributor to global warming.    

Today, consumers can also serve as watchdogs as well by rating corporate green activities through sites such as Greenwashing Index, Do the Right Thing and Climate Counts.    

Involvement by governments: Today, there is growing global support for action on global warming.  Signs of this momentum are perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in the US and Australia – two countries that have long been holdouts for global action.  Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a sea change in Australia, as Kevin Rudd, the newly-elected Prime Minister, signed the Kyoto accord as one of his first acts of government.  Moreover, the US Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted last week for an ambitious 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.   

So, marketers should take note.  Early signs are that green may not bring holiday cheer to retailers. Nonetheless, green marketers should remain steadfast.  Though consumer focus on green may fluctuate, green as a trend is here to stay.  Five key influencers will not only ensure that is the case but accelerate its growth over time.   


Drought Can Spark a National Dialogue on Climate Change – Part II

October 20, 2007

“You can’t call it a drought anymore, because [the US Southwest is] going over to a drier climate.  No one says the Sahara is in a drought.”   — Richard Seager, Scientist, Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory as quoted in “The Future is Drying Up”, New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2007 

As first published in its July 14, 2007 posting, Marketing Green believes that persistent drought in the US can be an effective catalyst that sparks a broader, national dialogue on climate change.  With drought conditions worsening in areas of the US, the time is now for such a conversation. 

Drought can be a catalyst for a broader dialogue for many reasons. First, drought will directly impact the human condition, causing inconvenience and suffering.  Second, drought will likely cause economic hardship by limiting growth, reducing output, and significantly increasing costs (eg, building infrastructure to move water long distances or desalinate water).  Finally, droughts force political leaders to make unpopular trade-offs that require voter sacrifice. 

Indeed, as tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine reports, drought conditions are worsening in the historically dry Southwest while expected population growth will put more demands on limited resources in the years to come.  Shortages are on the horizon across the region, but are especially apparent in cities like Las Vegas which is dependent on water from Lake Mead, the largest man-made reservoir in the US, that is currently at less than half of its capacity.   Moreover, continued shortages will likely pit one entity against another in price wars and legal battles as individuals, businesses and governments compete for scarcer resources. 

Drought conditions in the typically temperate US Southeast may demonstrate a more alarming trend because they are so unexpected.  With scorching heat this past summer and a hurricane season that failed to materialize, the city of Atlanta confronts the drier winter season with record low water levels in its reservoirs.   Most experts agree, it is the driest period every recorded in the Southeast; few signs are on the horizon that suggest the situation is likely to improve any time soon. 

Interestingly, extreme drought in the Southeast is fueling water disputes between regional states over scheduled water releases from Lake Lanier, the primary water source for three million Georgian residents, that are mandated by the Endangered Species Act and enforced by the US Army Corps of Engineers. 

Currently, as Georgia enters what is typically its driest month, Lake Lanier holds a mere 81 days of stored water left.  Georgians have responded by imposing severe restrictions on water use, but unbridled growth over the past decade and limited water use planning up until now have put a strain on existing resources.   

But, it is the actions by the Georgia legislature that, perhaps, are generating the most controversy.  Pending legislation would temporarily wave compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act and allow Georgia (via the Corps) to suspend water releases from the Lanier that currently protect endangered mussels and sturgeon downstream.  So far, the Corps refuses to budge which means that a legal showdown is likely ahead. 

The state of Florida has leveled a complaint already, asking Georgia to release more, not less, water to protect Floridian biodiversity.  Moreover, Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama has asked the Corps to release additional water from other Georgian water sources in order to alleviate shortages in that state.    

It is likely that cross-border disputes will only intensify if sufficient rains do not come soon.  In fact, facing severe water shortages, Atlanta may soon become the first metropolitan region to reduce water available for commercial and industrial activities, a threat to the local economy.   These threats will only be compounded if reservoirs do not refill before next summer when water use is traditionally the highest.  

As water become more scarce and entities compete for dwindling resources, marketers have an opening to leverage drought a conversation starter for a national dialogue on climate change.  In many ways, expanding drought conditions will force the conversation as we will have to deal with consequences of a drier climate whether we are prepared to do so or not.  

Because the populous in the US is geographically dispersed, however, marketers risk that such discussions will be isolated to those regions most affected.  As such, it is an imperative for marketers to broaden the discussion regarding worsening drought conditions and their causes to create a truly national debate.


Green Marketing as a Vehicle for Consumer Engagement

October 12, 2007

Today, smart marketers are focused not only on whether consumers view their message, but to what extent they engage with it.  One definition of engagement is as a measure of consumer involvement with a marketing vehicle.  As defined, it implies that engagement should be considered as both a marketing tactic and a metric that can be measured and optimized. 

The green space is ripe for engagement in large part because consumers are interested in green not just as a product category but as a social cause.  As a result, consumers are not only highly open to invitations to engage, but eager to do so when given the opportunity.   Many, in fact, actively seek outlets for their passion; marketers only need to activate them by providing the opportunity. 

Several marketers have already tapped into this passion by creating points of engagement that go well beyond your average marketing communication. 

One such example is CNN’s Impact your World.  CNN is one of the premier news brands today.  Traditionally, news organizations like CNN have provided ways to consume and subsequently react to news by providing the opportunity to comment on news stories – a form of engagement in of itself.  

Yet, CNN Impact takes engagement to the next level by providing consumers with a way to act on their interests in or passion for particular news events – green or otherwise.  One great example is the recent story of the small Iraqi child that suffered severe burns.  CNN Impact enabled its viewers not only to read articles about the child but to take action by making donations to cover his medical bills.   engagement-tactics_3.gif 

In the green space, CNN Impact provides the opportunity for viewers to take action through its “Planet in Peril” section.  CNN provides links to relevant content as well as to environmental non-profits where viewers can make a donation.  CNN facilitates donations by partnering with Charity Navigator to provide information on non-profits to enable users to make more informed decisions. 

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Another great vehicle for driving engagement was the recent Members Project by American Express.  In this project, American Express designated significant funds to be donated to a cause of its cardmember’s choosing.   A platform was created for cardmembers to nominate and vote on different projects over a three month period. 

In the end, American Express cardmembers chose to fund a UNICEF project to bring clean drinking water to children (a noble project that is at the intersection of green and human health).  American Express provided the platform for the project; cardmembers engaged with each other through this platform to determine the project’s outcome. 

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Smart green marketers should take advantage of green as both a product and a social cause by creating deeper opportunities for engagement with their consumers.  Companies can facilitate engagement in multiple ways: by enabling consumers to act on their interests (eg, by connecting them with volunteer opportunities, enabling donations as in CNN Impact) or interact with peers (eg, through community or discussion boards), by encouraging content creation and distribution, and by facilitating product ideation (eg, through collaborative environments) or direct feedback to a company.   

Moreover, marketers may motivate consumer engagement by wrapping a product with an affinity-based experience (eg, Members Project) or by providing access to an event or experience that has perceived value or is deemed exclusive. 

Given the passion that some consumers have for the category, marketers may be surprised by the response and the impact that such marketing vehicles may have on the bottom line.  

(Disclosure: American Express is a client of Digitas)


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