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.


Eco-labels Impact Consumer Behavior

May 24, 2008

Eco-labels influence consumer behavior in two ways.  First, they introduce green as a considered attribute at the point of sale.  Second, they enable consumers to comparison shop based on green.  Over the past few years, there have been many new eco-labels launched by governments, manufacturers and retailers.  Many of these labels are listed on Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices site.

Interestingly, the Natural Marketing Institute’s 2007 LOHAS Consumer Trends Database report determined that not all eco-labels have the same impact.  In fact, consumers indicate that they are more likely to make eco-friendly purchase decisions if the eco-labels are also widely recognized and trusted brands in of themselves.  Familiar labels for programs like the EPA’s Energy Star have a more significant influence on consumer behavior than others. 

While such a finding reinforces the value of eco-labels, it does challenge the notion that CPG companies and retailers should necessarily launch proprietary labels to differentiate themselves on green.

Like all brands, eco-labels take significant time and resources to build.  Moreover, given the sensitivities regarding greenwashing, for-profit entities may have to overcome a higher hurdle than government or a non-profit organization given the appearance of conflict if proprietary labels adorn their own products.

 

As such, Marketing Green recommends that product companies and retailers focus on disclosing product information about environmental impact to differentiate themselves in the market rather than trying to define new green labels.  Disclosures provide consumers with information that can inform purchase decisions rather than certify a product’s greenness.  This is what HP has done with its launch of Eco Highlights labels on its products.   

Marketing Green also recommends that retailers simultaneously push for industry-wide labels.  While some retailers may consider proprietary labels as a competitive differentiator, it is likely that broadly recognized labels will accelerate consumer adoption while reduce the cost to support them. 

 

Moreover, retailers should differentiate themselves by sourcing more green products.  Arguably, this is one of Wal-Mart’s strategic priorities today.  Greater variety combined with recognized eco-labels will likely drive more sales as well as consumer loyalty.  In the end, this approach is likely to have more impact for both business and the environment.


Shopping for Green Online

March 4, 2008

An Interview with thepurplebook Founder Hillary Mendelsohn

With the exception of a few select product categories, growing consumer interest in green has not yet translated into substantive changes in purchase behavior by mainstream consumers.  Like many nascent categories, green faces many barriers to widespread adoption. 

In many ways, product adoption in the green space is a classic chicken and an egg problem: uncertain demand leads manufactures to limit the number of products they launch.  Limited products and product choice, in turn, curtails demand.  However, this only tells half the story as there are many reasons why demand is limited. 

Even with those receptive to a green message, marketers are challenged by low familiarity with green products.  This, in turn, hampers consumers from effectively navigating the category as well as making informed purchase decisions.   

Where do consumers turn for credible information today?  Product companies?  Not necessarily, as consumers are increasingly skeptical about green marketing claims.  Fellow consumers?  Uncertain, as their peers are likely to have equally limited experience with green products.  

Can consumers rely on standards?   Perhaps.  Standards have been adopted in certain categories and many more are on the way.  Yet, rollout of new standards takes time; familiarity with what existing ones mean (i.e., how green is green?) is still limited.    

Instead, consumers today may turn to credible third party sources for guidance.  One such source is the recently launched thepurplebook green, a complete guide to green shopping online.  With an extended following already, thepurplebook series enters the green market with significant brand awareness…and credibility as a reliable source for online shopping information.  Indeed, just weeks after launch, thepurplebook green is planning a second printing.

thepurplebook_image.gif

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with thepurplebook Founder Hillary Mendelsohn.  We discussed growing consumer interest in the environment, the role that purchases play for consumers to express their convictions on green and the role that thepurplebook green plays in facilitating green purchases.  Here is what she had to say: 

MG: Does consumer concern for the environment translate into increased purchase of green products? 

HM: Purchasing power holds two powerful acts for the consumer.  First, purchasing green allows the consumer to feel better about his/her choices and particularly for personal care products, food and household items there are positive health-oriented reasons  to make such purchases.   

Second, other than voting, this is the consumer’s strongest voice to the corporations at large.  Purchasing green holds corporate America more accountable for creating green options, and ultimately having greener practices internally. 

For both of these reasons, the ‘voice’ that purchasing green gives the consumer has and will continue to increase the sales volume of green products. 

MG: What types of green products do consumers purchase?   

HM: Consumers are purchasing based on their lifestyles.  Young families are focused on greener/healthier cleaning, food and personal care items.  Older consumers are building or remodeling green.  The overall theme is that people are beginning to care about shopping more responsibly and are looking for ways to make better choices.   

It is the job of thepurplebook green and those of us that care about this concern to point them in the right direction. 

MG: Are consumers purchasing green products or brown products that are now greener? 

HM: The answer is both.  But the victory lies in the fact that they are making the effort to make better choices.  We must educate, create standards and make sure products do not lack in quality, style or cost too much.  If we can show consumers that they do not have to compromise on quality, taste or price, we can have everyone purchasing green. 

MG: What was the origin of the book?  Did it evolve out of a passion for green or a business opportunity similar to your other books or a little of both? 

HM: I knew very little about being green prior to starting this book.  I was happily writing online shopping guides when one evening, a friend invited me to see a screening of An Inconvenient Truth.  I sat in the darkened theater thinking about how I had contributed to this huge problem, and the legacy my children will inherit.   

Then I thought, if I were to become part of the solution instead, what would that look like?  Being an online shopping expert, I went to the web to see what I could find as far as earth-friendly fare was concerned.  It was slim pickings and hard to find anything at all. 

I thought, if I apply my skill set and focus exclusively on green product, I will educate myself, and create a book that might help make being green easier for others.  That said, I am a business professional, and what I have discovered, is that green makes sense and makes money – they are not mutually exclusive.   

I do hope this book is wildly successful, as that will mean people are adopting change and I have done my part. 

MG: Who is your target audience?  What beliefs do they hold about the environment?  What are their demographics?  Are they consistent with their behavior? 

HM: The beauty of this book is that it is meant for the eco-neophyte as well as the eco-savvy.  There is education and information for those who want to learn more and great resources for those who already know why they are making  better choices but can’t find the product.  There isn’t a demographic, but rather those wanting a greener lifestyle.   

The idea isn’t to exclude anyone, but to include everyone open to making greener choices whether it is their first or someone who lives dedicated to the greenest lifestyle possible.  This is doable for everyone.  The more we encourage choice and change, the more people will adopt greener lifestyle habits. 

Consistency lies within the consumer having good experiences with green products.  Once they have found good products, they do stick with them. 

MG: How should merchants approach you for inclusion in the book?  What is the criteria for inclusion? 

HM: Any merchants who wish to be considered for inclusion in thepurplebook Green, can log on to www.thepurplebook.com and submit their site for inclusion.   

Our criteria includes the following:  You must be able to complete the transaction online using a secure server, the site must be reasonable to navigate, customer service policies must be clearly stated and fair and a phone number is required for all sites. 

MG: How do you determine how green a company is?  Do you use a ratings system?  

HM: We have familiarized ourselves with all of the certifications currently used and have tried to glean a working knowledge of what is and isn’t green.   If we have questions, we contact the site and we do our very best to deliver consistent, quality information to our consumers. 

If we question it, or a site is not completely green but has a substantial green offering, we let the consumer know that too.  We are all trying to just to do better than we were yesterday, and need to keep that in mind and not judge too harshly. 

This is a relatively new area and we all have much to learn.  No one knows it all – yet.  All of the sites listed in the book are exceptional or they would not be there; however, we do make a special acknowledgement for those sites that also package and ship green.


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.   


Defining Green Brand Leadership

October 29, 2007

“We will not be measured by our aspirations.  We will be measured by our actions”                   

– Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in making sustainability part of his core strategy

Great brands today understand that return on investment (ROI) using hard dollars is not sufficient to assess the overall impact of environmental initiatives.  Today, social norms regarding the environment are changing and consumers are increasingly holding brands accountable for what they do (and don’t do) rather than just what they say.  As a result, more and more companies are making investment decisions that incorporate brand impact and brand risk into their equations. 

Wikipedia defines brand as the “embodiment of all information connected to [a] product and serves to create associations and expectations around it.”  Though intangible, a brand may generate significant value for a company based on its ability to create differentiated experiences for consumers – and enable the company to generate and sustain future cash flows as a result. 

One way to view a brand is that it can enable companies to charge a premium for what may ordinarily be perceived as a commodity product.  Take for example Coca-Cola, the #1 brand based on the 2007 BusinessWeek/Interbrand survey.  According to the Brand Finance 250 annual report, Coca-Cola has the highest brand value – over $43 billion or nearly 40% of its total $110 billion enterprise value – in a highly competitive beverage market.   

While taste is indeed an important differentiator, Coca-Cola is able to charge a premium for its products – and generate significant brand value – primarily due to the strong brand loyalty of its customers. 

Increasingly, leading brand companies are recognizing that environmental issues have the potential to impact brand value – positively or negatively – and are taking action.  Coca-Cola clearly understands this and is aggressively responding with bold initiatives that are intent on shoring up its green credentials. 

For example, consumers today are less willing to accept that a plastic bottle will take 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill.  By proactively redesigning its bottle to reduce material use and pledging to recycle 100% of bottles sold in the US, Coca-Cola is clearly taking action to stay ahead of consumer brand expectations – and by doing so, defending (or perhaps enhancing) its brand value.

Does reduced material use lower production costs for Coca-Cola?  Absolutely.  Does committing to recycling 100% of its bottles help attract new customers?  Not necessarily.  Regardless, recycling bottles impacts its brand value – and ability to continue to sustain future cash flows – by strengthening connections with existing customers and mitigating potential risk to its corporate reputation as a result of negative PR.

Today, many leading brands like Coca-Cola are responding to consumer concerns about the environment by making investments that strengthen or shore up brand value.  Marketing Green believes that there are five actions that define green brand leaders. These five actions need to be considered by companies looking to green their brands: 

Be accountable.  Companies should acknowledge that environmental issues such as climate change are real and that, despite good intentions, they are part of the problem (and can be part of the solution). At this point, businesses are likely to alienate few consumers with such a statement and can begin to attract the growing group of consumers looking for green brand leadership.    

Additionally, businesses should audit their own operations and the lifecycle of their products – including sourcing, use and disposal – to determine their environmental impact and track these metrics over time. Indeed accountability, now considered one of the top pillars of successful marketing communications, cannot be underestimated when it comes to the environmental space.

Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and increasingly demanding when it comes to the environment.  Companies should not be shy in setting high goals for themselves when it comes to the environment; if there’s any time to admit the future needs to be different than the past, it’s now.  

Be transparent.  More and more, leading brands are providing public disclosures of their environmental and social impact.  Today, in fact, 43 of the top 100 brands – including 12 of the top 15 – make public disclosures based on sustainability guidelines set by the Global Reporting Initiative. 

This reporting framework – first proposed by Boston-based non-profit CERES, endorsed by the United Nations Environmental Programme and supported by a consortium of leading brands including Alcan, BP, Ford, GM, Microsoft, RBC Financial and Shell – has become the de facto standard for environmental and social reporting globally.  Currently, more than 1,250 companies in over 60 countries are making disclosures using this framework. 

Another way that companies are demonstrating transparency is through partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the National Resource Defense Council and Environmental Defense (ED).  NGOs provide credibility for a company because consumers view them as industry watch dogs. 

Certainly, one of the best partnership examples is the one forged between Wal-Mart and ED to make Wal-Mart’s operations and supply chain more sustainable.  In effect, Wal-Mart – not ranked in the BusinessWeek/Interbrand survey because it operates internationally under different brand names – has turned to a respected NGO to endorse its environmental efforts. 

This partnership hold such promise that ED announced last year that it was adding a staff position in Bentonville, AR in order to coordinate ongoing work with the retail giant.

Be credible.  Today, consumers are skeptical; too many companies have tried to green wash hollow environmental efforts.  As such, companies must work hard to build credibility and earn consumer trust over time.   

One way for a company to do so is to first green its internal operations, followed by its products and services, and then its marketing communications.  This way, companies ensure that they take responsibility for their own actions before encouraging consumers to do so with their products or through their messaging. 

But this is not the only way to gain credibility with consumers.  Companies like Toyota (# 6 ranked brand) started by greening its products (eg, hybrids) first.  The risk for a company, however, is that over time its own product enthusiasts are likely to challenge how the product is made.  In the case of Toyota, hybrid owners are now pressuring it to green its operations and manufacturing facilities and Toyota is taking action, according to Marjorie Schussel, National Manager of Corporate Communications, at the recent Green Conference sponsored by Ad Age. 

In contrast, Dell (#31 ranked brand, in contrast to #3 IBM and Dell archrival #12 ranked HP) started with its marketing communications first, declaring that it was going to be the greenest IT company on earth.  In doing so, it essentially admitted that its operations and products were not green yet but that it had every intention to make them green over time.  To help facilitate this transformation, Dell created a site called IdeaStorm to solicit input from its customers on ways by which it could go green. 

Be an enabler.  Leading brands should recognize that consumer expectations have changed.  It is not enough for a company to green its products; consumers expect the products that they purchase to help reduce the environmental impact in their own lives too. 

Recent research by Umbria, a marketing intelligence company, supports this.  Averill Doering, a consumer research analyst with Umbria, made the following observation: “[Consumers] see the [environmental] problem. They want to do something about it.  And, they want the companies they buy from to help them do it.” 

Such consumer expectations raise the bar and imply that consumers may hold companies responsible for the environmental impact of the products that they buy – across the entire lifecycle.  Consumers may increasingly care not just about product sourcing, but about its use and disposal too.  The emergence of eco-labels may serve to reinforce these consumer expectations as they will provide consumers with the necessary information to make greener choices by comparison shopping.  

Leading brands only need to witness the growth in hybrid sales – 49% during the first seven months of 2007 over the same period in 2006 – to recognize that consumers are actively seeking products that enable them to be greener.  Today, every major automobile company is following suit and is accelerating development and commercialization of greener automobiles. 

Be visionary. Visionaries are willing to make bold decisions that redefine their strategy or reshape industry dynamics.  Today, there are many emerging green visionaries.  Among them is Wal-Mart. 

In June of 2004, a pivotal meeting took place between CEO Lee Scott, Rob Walton, Board member and son of the late founder, and Peter Seligmann, Co-founder and CEO of Conservation International.  Walton and Seligmann were friends and had often discussed the potential impact that Wal-Mart could have as the largest global retailer if it were to change the way it did business.   

The pitch to Scott: Wal-Mart had long been criticized for its labor practices, employee health benefits and environmental record.  Given its buying power as the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart was in a unique position to affect change in the retail space and do so in a way that would greatly reduce its impact on the environment while saving money, growing revenue and positively impacting its brand image. 

Over time, Scott has essentially turned this pitch into Wal-Mart’s modus operandi.  Not only did Scott set ambitious goals regarding sustainability – 100% renewable energy, zero waste, products that sustain our resources and environment – but he has made it a central component of his strategy and brand positioning.   

Wal-Mart first demonstrated the demand for more sustainable products when it began selling organic cotton yoga outfits through Sam’s Club: 190K sold in less than 10 weeks. This year, Wal-Mart challenged itself to sell 100MM compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and has already surpassed that goal.  To do so, it combined its marketing muscle to heavily advertise the CFLs in its stores, and purchasing clout to be able to drive down the cost substantially over just one year ago. 

Moreover, Wal-Mart is intent on making its suppliers more sustainable.  Earlier this year, Wal-Mart launched Sustainability 360º, a program intended to enlist its employees, suppliers, customers and local communities to help reduce environmental impact.  This month Scott hosted a Sustainability Summit to connect Wal-Mart suppliers with vendors that could help them become more sustainable.  

Finally, Wal-Mart has expanded its brand positioning to include not just its long time low cost promise, but also “affordable, sustainable products that help [customers] live better every day.”  “Save Money. Live Better” is now the Wal-Mart tag line.    

Increasingly, companies recognize that environmental issues can impact brand value.  In response, leading brands are increasingly incorporating brand metrics into their evaluation criteria for green investments; they are also taking action to green their operations, products and marketing communications.   

Smart brand marketers should think twice about simply focusing on near-term green revenue and cost savings opportunities; the path for sustaining growth needs to also start with greening the brand.


Tackling Claims of Greenwashing

June 3, 2007

Today, an increasing number of companies are staking out a competitive position in the green marketplace by attempting to “out-green” their competitors.  This tactic, however, is a double-edged sword.  While companies may benefit from being a leader on green – by increasing sales, reducing costs or mitigating risk, they also expose themselves (and their green initiatives) to a higher level of public scrutiny than those with less competitive claims.  In fact, despite good intentions, if these leading companies engage in even simple acts that diverge from their green claims, they risk public charges of “greenwashing”.

Over the past few weeks, two leading green companies learned this first hand.  Tesco, the UK-based retailer, was criticized for apparently shipping DVDs 1,400 miles (from the UK to Switzerland and back again) in order to save UK consumers a pound fifty in tax.  Lexus (a division of Toyota) took heat for tuning a hybrid engine not to minimize fuel consumption, but to maximize power.  A 438 horsepower car (called “the world’s first luxury hybrid muscle car” by USA Today) that goes 0 to 60 in 5.5 seconds may be hot for consumers, but does not help cool the planet.

When events like these occur, consumers are increasingly turning to the Internet to express their views.  Anti-corporate blogs provide one outlet for consumers.  Content posted on these sites, however, tends to be too brash to appeal to mainstream consumers. 

Alternatively, Do the Right Thing provides a powerfully simple way for consumers to express their opinions: consumers can read news articles and rate companies based on their positive or negative social impact.  This site operates in a similar way to Digg (click to view environmental stories on Digg).  But, instead of ranking stories based on popularity, it ranks companies based on consumer perception of how positive or negative their social impact is.   

The weighted average ranking reflects (with sufficient sample size) the consensus of the community.  One recent example: while Google and Whole Foods both get 3.9 ratings on the site for their efforts to invest in renewable energy, Toyota gets a -2.4 for its low fuel economy Tundra pick-up truck. 

The emergence of such sites will likely add to the growing pressure on companies to green their activities and do so in a way that is genuine, transparent, consistent (both internally and externally) and impactful.  For companies, such consumer-powered content sites can provide positive benefit as well: ratings provide a simple way to gauge consumer attitudes and sentiment on a specific initiative or over time.   

So, corporations take note:  Companies that stake out a leading competitive position on green also expose themselves to a greater level of public scrutiny.  Consumer-powered content sites are making it easier for mainstream consumers to express their opinions on green corporate initiatives.  Corporations must respond by policing their own activities more carefully to ensure that they are aligned with green competitive claims.  Companies that fail to do this risk that consumers will expose these initiatives as simply “greenwashing.”


Brewing Direct Mail Backlash

May 8, 2007

This past week HSBC launched its “There’s No Small Change” campaign offering Green Kits full of eco-products and offers to new customers that sign up for a checking account and HSBC’s automatic bill payment option.  Such an offer is a win-win-win: customers receive a high value offer, HSBC acquires new customers that have built-in switching costs via the automatic payment options and the environment is healthier due to reduced paper consumption.

One of the reasons why such an offer may resonate with consumers is the growing acceptance that paper-based communications are not environmentally sound.  Such changing sentiment could foreshadow a backlash by consumers and advocacy groups that may force marketers to rein in all paper-based marketing efforts, including the $56 billion US direct mail industry.

Today, direct marketers rely on DM as a core channel to send targeted information to customers (from an in-house database or purchased from an external list).  What happens then if consumer backlash against the mounds of direct mail received each day results in a national “Do Not Mail” list, eliminating the ability of marketers to send solicitations without permission?  Sound fantastical?  Well, here are a few thoughts to consider:

First, the “Do Not Call” campaign was one of the most successful campaigns in history, resulting in 62 million consumers signing up in the first year alone.  As of September 2006, more than 132 million people were registered on the list.

Second, a “Do Not Mail” registry is gaining traction.  According to the Direct Marketing Association, “Do Not Mail” legislation has been introduced in more than 14 states so far this year that would create state-based registries.  Nine of these initiatives are still active (of which 5 are in Northeastern states where there is also real concern about limited landfill space): 

States

Status
CT,HI, MI, MO, NJ, NY, RI, VT, WA Active/In Committee
AK, CO, MD, MT, TX Postponed/Withdrawn

Inevitably, such a registry (or the threat of one) will cause marketers to rethink paper-based channels, increasing their reliance on electronic communications (eg, websites, email, e-statements, e-catalogs, desktop widgets).  It is also likely to decrease the footprint of any remaining direct mail efforts (eg, use of post-consumer recycled paper, reduced frequency and size of package).  

Smart green marketers should interpret pending legislation as a call-to-arms and take proactive steps to reduce their addiction to paper-based channels before they have to go cold turkey.


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