Green Brand Learnings

Green brand research conducted by Landor Associates indicates that a majority of consumers are “not interested” in green brands. (“The Power of Green Brands”, June 2006). While this is somewhat discouraging news, this study offers powerful lessons for marketing to the healthy 42% of consumers that are either “green motivated” (17%) or “green interested” (25%).

Green brands must clearly articulate their brand promise and support this promise with deeds rather than just words. Tell consumers what they should expect from the company and illustrate by drawing distinctions with competitors. Then, exceed those expectations.

Consumers are somewhat confused and mislead by claims of being green. Consumers do not have a clear definition of what it means to be green, with most equating natural or organic ingredients or environmentally-friendly technologies with being good for the environment (rather than actual environmental impact). This is a clear sign that consumers need to be more fully informed regarding what it means to be green. Moreover, without having a clear basis for comparison, consumers find it difficult to judge how genuinely “green” a product really is. Consumer education, clear standards and credible endorsements would go along way here.

For good or for bad, consumers may equate brand expression with being green. Consumer misperceptions have apparently created accidental green brands whereby consumers have misinterpreted packaging, labeling or logos as signs of being green. One example cited is Subway – a brand perceived by consumers as green based on its logo and healthy menu, rather than its brand promise. This is worrisome for marketers: brands that are not eco-friendly may take advantage of this, while green brands may find the impact of their brand expression eroded over time.

Purchasing behavior by individual consumers is not consistently green across all categories. Research indicates that “green motivated” consumers “favor green brands within the grocery, beauty and personal care categories but will purchase brands that are not considered green in the fast food and petroleum categories”. As such, marketers must be careful to apply learnings across categories before retesting in market.

Products that appeal to niche markets can impact the entire category. Green marketing should draw distinctions between brands based on green issues. While messaging may initially appeal only to those that are “green motivated”, effective differentiation may compel other companies in the category to respond. One classic example is The Body Shop. When the company positioned itself as animal-friendly – that is, it did not use animal testing for any of its products – bad PR compelled other major cosmetic companies were obliged to follow suit. These products are now sold in mainstream markets to all consumers – whether they are “green interested” or not.

Beliefs Influence Green Behavior: Lessons from Guatemala

It is well established that consumer beliefs influence purchasing behavior. For consumer products that support or reinforce underlying consumer beliefs, marketers should focus on activating favorable behavior. If, however, attributes of the product do not align with underlying consumer beliefs, marketers face the more difficult challenge of first reshaping beliefs before having any reasonable prospect of influencing subsequent behavior. As professors Scott Atran, Douglas Medin and Norbert Ross demonstrate in their recent paper, “The Cultural Minds: Environmental Decision Making and Cultural Modeling Within and Across Populations” Psychological Review, 2005, environmental beliefs are no different. Cultural norms – “shared values, beliefs and associated behaviors” impact decision making regarding the environment (in this case, sustainable forest practices). In doing so, this study has direct implications for green marketers in terms of who they target as customers and how they shape beliefs and influence behavior towards everything green.

Atran, et al, conducted research with three culturally distinct groups within the Guatemalan lowland rainforests. By studying populations that lived within the same physical environment, Atran et al, isolated the influence of cultural (beliefs) on behavior while holding economic, demographic, and ecological factors constant. Three groups – the native Izta’ Maya, Spanish-speaking immigrant Ladinos and immigrant Q’eqchi’ Maya – live within lowland Maya region, an area that faces the threat of ecological disaster from “differential use of common-pool resources, such as forest plants, by different cultural groups exploiting the same habitat” – a classic example of the tragedy of the commons.

What is surprising is that “different populations, who engage in the same activities, have very different impacts to the environment”. Atran et al, set out to understand not only why this was the case, but also to identify the key contributing factors which shaped behaviors toward the environment.

Key learning for green marketers:

Shared values predict behavior. Atran et. al. demonstrated that beliefs predict human impact on plants (deforestation) among the three groups studied. Each group varied considerably in its propensity to practice sustainable forestry: simply put, the Itza sustained their land, the Q’eqchi did not and the Ladinos were somewhere in the middle. Atran et. al. demonstrated that beliefs (e.g., ecological centrality of plants, value of plants for cash, wood or shelter, etc.) were highly correlated with human impact.

Shared values create a contextual framework for decision making. People with shared values and beliefs tend to have similar contextual frameworks (mental models) that result in similar decisions being made – even when confronted with new or unfamiliar stimuli. Environmental decision-making is no different.

Religion motivates behaviors, and may even override economic self-interests. The Itza’ are a religious people and the belief in forest spirits is strong, especially among the men. Such beliefs are powerful motivating factors which dictate behaviors (which animals and plants to protect, etc.) in order to placate spirits or win their favor. While a delicate subject for marketers, religion can be a powerful motivating force for certain target segments.

Education is critical to shaping/evolving beliefs. People do not appreciate or value what they do not understand. In this study, for example, the Ladinos were learning sustainable practices from the Itza’s, which resulted in measurable improvements in forest sustainability over time.

Influencers matter. Trusted expert do shape beliefs and influence behavior. Yet, people have to be receptive to the message. Atran et al, found that the more overlap between expert and social networks, the greater the influence exerted (in this case knowledge transferred regarding sustainable practices).

Multiple channels and touch points required to reinforce message. Information gets passed through a diffused process, such that “multiple interaction pathways” may be required to have significant impact (at the individual and communal levels). The message can be acquired directly (in this case stories passed down from generation to generation or relayed through expert and social networks) or through hands on experience (trial and error). Reinforcing the message through all channels (social networks) tends to add to diffuse the message more rapidly.

Computer Recyclers Send Mix Messages

This week Dell Computer became the latest US computer manufacturer to announce that it would recycle old computers, following similar announcements by Apple and HP. While each program is somewhat distinct, each offers to recycle its own products (free-of-charge or free with purchase of a new computer) or that of its competitors (for a nominal fee). Such programs amount to a giant leap forward for e-waste recycling in the US, and have generated positive PR for the industry. Yet, overall program objectives are uncertain. As such, what has the potential to be a significant leap forward for the environment is endanger of generating only short term PR benefits.

The impetus for computer recycling comes from two areas: First, EU regulations demand that manufacturers do so under its “Extended Producer Responsibility” law which came into effect in 2005. This law requires manufacturers to take back for free all e-waste including computers, printers, displays, cell phones, etc. (A sister law regulates the use of toxic substances such as cadmium, lead and mercury comes into effect this year). Japanese manufacturers have already adopted EU regulations, thus making them the de factor global standard. The second source is US consumers which are increasingly aware of the environmental hazards of simply throwing away computers and/or the inconvenience of storing old hardware, uncertain about what to do with them.

From a marketing perspective, manufacturers are able to generate significant PR with limited commitment and risk. EU regulations have already forced OEMs to take steps to incorporate cradle-to-grave practices into their design and manufacturing practices. Bottomline: HP, Apple and Dell have already done the heavy lifting to comply with EU regulations, so a rollout in the US should require only incremental costs. Second, recycling programs are voluntary and are not backed by legislative mandates or targets in most cases. The federal government has dropped the ball and only four states have enacted e-waste legislation to date – California, Maine, Maryland and Washington. (Apparently, OEMs have campaigned against the passage of state regulation – at the same time embracing EU standards). Finally, OEMs have not set specific recycling targets, resulting in uncertain goals and metrics of success.

While the industry hopes to continue to generate significant PR from its recycling programs (and perhaps some brand loyalty), it is also important for marketers to understand what factors exist that could undermine this positive PR and shift sentiments in the wrong direction. PR can be a powerful tool to shape perceptions and drive awareness, consideration and purchase intent. Sustaining positive sentiment, however, may require OEMs to do more: set tangible goals for recycling product and demonstrate impact in the market. OEMs like Apple, Dell and HP should take note.