What Green Businesses Can Learn from Obama’s Campaign

December 14, 2012

Although President Barack Obama ran a successful campaign and won a decisive electoral-college victory, the margin in key battleground states was slight. Indeed, a shift of 407,000 votes across four of them — Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia — would have given Mitt Romney the 69 electoral votes he needed for victory.

Big data has been touted as key to Obama’s victory — and securing winning margins in swing states — by enabling the campaign to focus scarce resources on voters who could be persuaded to vote for Obama and, once persuaded, were likely to actually vote.

Critical to this effort was the Obama campaign’s recognition that voters may be demographically similar while at the same time strikingly different when it came to the issues that they cared about. As Dan Wagner, the campaign‘s chief analytics officer, told The Los Angeles Times, “White suburban women? They’re not all the same. The Latino community is very diverse with very different interests. What the data permits you to do is figure out that diversity.”

For the Obama campaign, a key to victory was to precisely understand which issue would be most persuasive to a voter’s choice and then microtarget like-minded voters with messaging that relayed the President’s stance on the issue and his action plan to address the issue going forward.

Underpinning this effort by the campaign was market research to determine the precise issue that most effectively influenced voter decisions — and which voters cared about which issues. The campaign also targeted known supporters, asking them to reach out to Facebook friends in swing states in hopes of influencing their voting decisions.

Such microtargeting is not limited to campaigns. Companies can also use this approach to identify and shape green brand preferences, and ultimately, purchase decisions. Here is how:

Focus on consumer persuadability. Politicians are known for boasting to voters about what they have done while in office and expecting voter support in return. This is similar to how many brands tout their green accomplishments today: more recyclable, safer chemicals, reduced material content. But, as in politics, such accomplishments may not be relevant to consumers, green or otherwise. Nor are they necessarily factors that influence brand preference and choice.

In contrast, the Obama campaign had a laserlike focus on the issues most associated with influencing voter decisions. Brands can learn from such an approach. By determining not only what consumers care about but also prioritizing messaging to focus on those needs most associated with consumer preference and choice, brands can have greater impact for a given investment. In each case, market research is required to reveal what cares or needs have the most influence on preference and choice and for which audiences.

Method’s recent Clean Happy video campaign illustrates such an approach. The campaign targets household decision-makers and focuses on a broad range of consumer cares and needs and how Method’s products deliver on each.

For example, one video titled “Clean Like a Mom” promotes Method household cleaning products that contain safer chemicals than traditional cleaners. But, instead of focusing exclusively on product attributes, the video highlights how Method products address specific consumer cares, namely, kids’ safety and the desire by moms to be perceived by their peers as doing the right thing. Presumably, Method did market testing and found out that with moms, these issues motivated greater brand preference and choice than alternatives.

Interestingly, green marketers can effectively influence consumer behavior even if consumers do not consider themselves to be green. One dramatic example comes from a Yale University/George Mason survey that segmented Americans based on their attitudes toward climate change.

The survey revealed that two consumer segments — the one most alarmed by and the one most dismissive of climate change — were the most future-oriented in terms of their outlook. Such attitudinal similarities provide a potential opening for marketers to try a more future-focused message when selling greener products to these segments despite their polar opposite views on climate change.

Be true to your brand. Some politicians try to reinvent themselves in order to tell voters what they want to hear. Arguably, this is similar to a brand that wants to engage consumers on green issues but is not currently perceived in the market as being green.

Brands do not necessarily have to be known for being green in order to be relevant to consumers. Instead, brands should tell their story in a way that is true to their existing brand positioning.

Unilever’s Axe is a great example. Known as an irreverent brand that uses the sex appeal of its products to drive sales, Axe launched its “ Showerpooling” campaign to engage its customer base on the issue of water conservation. The platform uses showerpooling — sharing showers — not only as a way to grab attention, but to make it relevant with the audience. The campaign jokes: “It’s not just environmentally friendly … it’s all kind of friendly.”

Target microsegments. The Obama campaign identified microsegments through research and projected these against a database of registered voters in a nationwide effort to influence voter choice. Of course, marketers could develop their own database by encouraging consumers to sign up for ongoing communications from a company.

But, even without a database, marketers can certainly target microsegments online. This can be done by targeting green consumers on contextually relevant sites, retargeting those visitors elsewhere online or by partnering with a demand side platform to identify and target audiences with like-minded profiles regardless of where they go online.

Turn loyalists into influencers. The Obama campaign successfully tapped its supporters to motivate friends in swing states to vote. Similarly, advertising campaigns should activate loyal customers to serve as influencers and advocates for the brand. Method deployed a similar approach in its recent campaign by distributing fun videos through social sites such as YouTube and Facebook and providing incentives for viewers to share them.

The Obama campaign demonstrated the power of microtargeting to influence voters, and arguably, affected the outcome of the election through this technique. Obama’s success was bolstered by focusing on specific issues most influential with specific voters, rather than a more general message. Such a campaign provides many lessons for green marketers — as well as the opportunity to take a similar approach to drive adoption of green products.


Reframing Ancestral Traits To Be Green

June 21, 2012

Certain human behaviors today reflect hardwired traits that helped our ancestors and their kin over time. Such behaviors provide individual benefit, yet the collective impact of such actions can be detrimental to the environment, creating a situation not unlike the Tragedy of the Commons.

Unfortunately, for green marketers, such individual behaviors are not easily influenced, creating an ever-present headwind that they must contend with. Confronting such behavior directly, such as asking individuals to make different choices because current ones are detrimental to the environment, has not proven very successful for marketers.

Instead, Vladas Griskevicius, Stephanie Cantú and Mark Van Vugt, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, suggest that there are alternative ways to shape such behaviors: Motivate individuals to take more pro-social (and therefore, more eco-friendly) actions by reframing them as having “evolutionary selfish” benefits.

Based on Griskevicius et al., there are at least three social motivations that will drive individuals to alter their behavior in a more pro-environmental way.

Social obligation. One ancestral trait that marketers must confront is that individuals promote self interest – or the interest of their kin – over others. Importantly, Griskevicius et al. note that this wasn’t always the case. For example, it is well documented that clans hunted together, generating mutual benefit. For marketers, this provides a window of understanding into how similar behavioral choices can be reframed today in order for individuals to generate positive benefits from collective actions.

One way marketers have tried to motivate individuals to do so is by creating a social obligation.  Hoteliers have attempted to do so by offering to make a donation on the behalf of guests if those guests reuse their towels once during their stay. Yet, when behavioral economists tested such messaging, it did not motivate significantly different behavior than traditional messaging.

Recently, economists have tried a different approach. This time, the offer of donation was reframed not as a choice but as a fait accompli. The hotel simply informed guests that a donation had been made on their behalf in exchange for reusing towels. In this case, guests felt more obligated to reciprocate, lifting towel reuse by 26 percent (from Goldstein, Noah J.,Vladas Griskevicius, and Robert B. Cialdini (2012), “Reciprocity by Proxy: Harnessing the Power of Obligation to Foster Cooperation,” Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming, as cited by Griskevicius et al.). For marketers, such reframing has broader applicability when companies can afford to incentivize consumer actions, but cannot track and reward individuals for their specific behaviors.

Social recognition. Another ancestral trait is that humans strive to achieve relative (though not absolute) status. This means that humans want a certain level of wealth, power or fame in relation to those around them. Such behavior – the proverbial “keeping up with the Joneses” – is well documented. For example, neighbors of Dutch lottery ticket winners have a higher propensity to purchase new cars or renovate the exterior of their existing homes within the following six months after the winner takes home the money. Such behavior, however, can be problematic as it can lead to over consumption.

Interestingly, consumption is not the only way to display relative status. In fact, as Griskevicius et al. mention somewhat counterintuitively, status can also be achieved through competitive altruism whereby wealthy donors compete for status based on the amount donated, with public recognition for their generosity as a primary motivator.

But marketers can drive eco-friendly actions more broadly with consumers, not just with wealthy donors. The Elan Inn in Hangzhou, China, for example, rewards hotel guests for reducing their carbon impact by moderating room temperatures in summer and winter, or even bringing their own towel. Such rewards would be even more powerful if status were associated with visible perks enjoyed during a hotel stay or meaningful badges displayed on Facebook or local social networks.

Social influence. A final ancestral trait is for humans to unconsciously emulate the behavior of others. For marketers, the challenge is to redirect the behavior by holding up pro-environmental behavior to emulate. For example, as Griskevicius et al. point out, it has been demonstrated that the conservation behavior of one’s neighbors is “often the strongest predictor of [one’s] actual energy use.”

Such benchmarking against others works well as long as a majority demonstrates the desired eco-friendly behavior. But, what happens if only a few neighbors do?

Griskevicius et al. suggest that in this situation, green marketers should reframe the message to create the perception that more people do. They provide an illustration: Instead of communicating that only 5 percent of municipal residents carpool, message that 250,000 do. Reframing the message from a relative to absolute basis can create the perception that more people support the eco-friendly behavior, elevating the social influence that a campaign can actually have.

Hardwired human traits present a challenge for green marketers, as individual behaviors that benefit natural selection may collectively be detrimental to the environment. Instead of confronting them head on, marketers should reframe behaviors to be more pro-social, while ensuring that they are perceived to benefit the individual. By doing so, marketers turn headwinds more favorable.


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.


Can Flash Mobs Engage Consumers on Green?

December 21, 2011

Recently, National Grid launched a surprise dance performance in a Saugus, MA mall as part of its ‘Tap into Savings’ campaign.  In many ways, this performance resembled a flash mob, with dancers appearing seemingly from nowhere to engage an unsuspecting crowd of shoppers, and then dispersing.

As a social phenomenon, the flash mob emerged in the early 00’s, enabled by Internet and mobile connectivity. While some flash mobs organize spontaneously, most are actually well-choreographed events that often captivate unsuspecting audiences where they occur.  One of the most viewed flash mobs was a choreographed rendition of “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music in Central Station Antwerp, Belgium.

While flash mobs are no longer the rage, marketers have periodically embraced the medium, as they consider it a tested way to engage new audiences and promote viral marketing.  Two corporate flash mobs are stand outs: First, in 2009, T-Mobile sponsored a flash mob in 2009 at Liverpool Station, London.

More recently, Wells Fargo sponsored a flash mob in New York City’s Times Square as part of their 2011 launch (rebranding of Wachovia) in the city.

Marketers in the green space have also embraced the flash mob, though primarily to make political statements rather than promote brands.  One such statement was made by students at the University of Catania in Sicily in its “The World Has Been Stripped Enough” flash mob for the 2011 World Environment Day.

Intriguingly, as green marketers and brands try to engage a more mainstream audience, it seems that there is broader role that flash mobs can play.  Specifically, flash mobs can:

Capture and hold attention.  Flash mobs capture consumer attention through the element of surprise, and hold it by being entertaining.

Green marketers can take advantage of this by turning the event into a teachable moment, especially when engaging audiences that might not ordinarily tune into an environmental message.  National Grid, for example, used its dance performance to teach shoppers about energy savings.

Reach fragmented audiences.  As channels have proliferated and audiences become more fragmented, marketers have had to respond by investing across more channels in order to be able to reach their intended audience.  In an ideal world, flexible creative assets can be produced all at once and then distributed across various channels.  Flash mobs offer a great example of a tactic that naturally aligns with this shift.

Take T-Mobile, for example.  While the flash mob captured the momentary attention of the surrounding crowds, it was also filmed for a TV spot that aired 36 hours later.  Video cuts were also distributed through channels like YouTube and viewed by millions more users.  This use of flexible assets enabled T-Mobile to get the most out of a single event.

Cultivate peer endorsements.  Marketers recognize that consumer endorsements can influence the behavior and beliefs of their peers.  Many marketers take advantage of this today by actively encouraging such endorsements as a key objective of the campaign.  Interestingly, flash mob dynamics may facilitate consumer endorsement more deliberately, or perhaps even enable a marketer to stage it.

A flash mob sponsored by TVA Canoe, an Internet TV site in Quebec, provides a great example of this. In this case, flash mob participants effectively reversed roles with unwitting bystanders.  To initiate the flash mob, a performer left an empty plastic bottle on the ground next to a recycling container in a well trafficked area of a mall. Shoppers filed pass the plastic bottle without much notice, while participants waited, blending in amongst the crowds.

Then, one woman, an unwitting bystander, picked up the bottle and put it into the recycling container. When she did, she was met with a standing ovation from the flash mob ‘audience’.

From a bystander’s view point, it looked as if fellow shoppers spontaneously broke into applause in response to an altruistic act by a peer.  Such overwhelming praise has the potential, in of itself, to be perceived by consumers as a peer endorsement, reinforcing the positive behavior in the minds of the consumer audience

Transform brand enthusiasts into participants. It is important for marketers to remember that green consumers tend to be passionate about not only what the brand stands for, but how much they can reduce their impact by choosing one product or brand over another.

Marketers should cultivate this sentiment by finding meaningful ways for enthusiasts to interact with the brand and share those experiences with others.  One way may be to invite enthusiasts to actually participate in a flash mob itself.  What better way to engage with the brand?  It certainly provides fodder for generating and sharing social content afterwards.

It has been a decade since flash mobs emerged as a social phenomenon.  Over that time, marketers have embraced the medium to drive engagement and encourage viral marketing.  Interestingly, green marketers challenged to engage mainstream audiences may find the flash mob especially useful in reaching target audiences and influencing behavior change.


Facebook Timeline’s Green Marketing Opportunities

November 26, 2011

Over the past few years, we have seen the web transform from a medium that facilitates information exchange to one that enables social connections and conversation.  Arguably, the recent launch of Facebook’s Timeline marks another milestone for the web, enabling a web experience more personal than ever before.

Timeline facilitates the sharing of a user’s life story – both the portion already written and the one still unfolding. It does so by transforming the current Facebook profile into an unending digital scrapbook of sorts.  Facebook reorganizes and summarizes available personal data such as likes, apps and photos into a timeline.  Users are then encouraged to fill in the gaps, especially meaningful events that predate their time on Facebook.

What makes Timeline so different is that it enables users to share their lives in an easily accessible, highly visual chronology, rather than simply post thoughts in the here and now.  A living memoir, if you will.

For green marketers, Timeline offers a unique new way to understand and connect with Facebook users, and one which they should take advantage of.  Here are a couple of ideas how:

Persistence:  Timeline organizes content in a way that enables individual posts to remain accessible, rather than disappear from view on the Facebook Wall.  Persistent access increases the value of this content – and Facebook as a channel for distributing it – by enabling it to be consumed and shared by viewers over a longer period of time.  This provides greater impetus for green marketers to motivate consumers to post about, like or share branded content on Facebook, as greater persistence means more impressions over time.

Prediction: Personal information has long been used to more effectively target users with ads.  Arguably, Timeline will enable a more in-depth view of the user mindset, revealing new targeting and messaging avenues.  Facebook has the potential to use this data not only to help green marketers find those that have demonstrated a clear affinity for green, but also to predict interest based on similar attitudes, experiences, demographics or behaviors.  This can enable green marketers to target micro-segments with more specific messaging, or even find new audiences, even those that have not yet taken action.

While Timeline is still in beta with consumers, there are expectations that Facebook will soon make Timeline functionality available for business pages.  Green brands should consider this new template for their own Facebook page as its functionality offers advantages for companies too:

Presentation: Timeline could enable new ways for businesses to present their brand online.  For example, Timeline enables a larger profile image prominently placed at the top of the page. Companies could use this space to build awareness for their brand or promote a trial offer for a new product.  Additionally, Timeline allows users to expand thumbnail images to provide a broader view of images and graphics, something for which the previous platform has limited ability to do.  This should benefit green marketers who find that their products require more explanation to drive broader adoption.

Persistence: A chronological Facebook business page would enable users ongoing access to brand information.  This should motivate green marketers to post more content on their Facebook pages such as product information, stories or even blog posts, bolstering these pages as comprehensive access points for brand content.

Timeline is an emerging platform that will enable users to have a more personal web experience.  Green marketers should take advantage of this functionality to more effectively engage consumers, as well as new capabilities as the platform evolves into the future.


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?


Rewards as a Driver of Green Consumer Engagement

November 27, 2010

I joined RecycleBank for many reasons, one due to an observation regarding the application of rewards in the green space.  Quite simply, rewards have the potential to change consumer behavior without necessarily changing attitudes first. I first wrote about this in a 2007 blog post. Today, it remains a powerful way to expand the appeal of green.

As every marketer knows, it is expensive, time consuming and downright difficult to change consumer attitudes. By contrast, rewards can reframe the dialogue by creating a financial incentive for consumers to engage, regardless of interest or attitude. The result is that rewards can expand the target audience to those motivated less by altruism than by financial gain. Suddenly, consumers that did not make the environment a priority are willing to take action to earn rewards. Marketers should be fine with this as long as it helps achieve business objectives in a cost-effective way.

Interestingly, rewards can be a critical tool for companies looking to enhance their marketing efforts. Rewards can be a tool to:

Motivate Consumer Engagement. Today, marketers are tasked with engaging with consumers in order to increase brand awareness, change sentiment and motivate purchase. Rewards can accelerate this effort by incentivizing consumers to take desired actions in order to earn rewards. Such a cost per engagement model can be particularly relevant for emerging green products with low awareness, as it provides an added incentive for consumers to engage, perhaps tiered based on the type, level or value of the interaction.

Optimize Engagement Experience. Marketers can optimize their efforts by promoting those consumer behaviors or sequence of behaviors that are more aligned with desired outcomes. Here is how it might work: Consumers earn points as they engage with content or tools online or take offline actions. Consumer behaviors are tracked and associated with specific points earned and rewards redeemed. Marketers can then optimize consumer engagement by promoting those behaviors that are most correlated with fulfilling campaign objectives.

Enhance Existing Incentives. Even when financial incentives already exist, they may not be sufficient to grab – and hold – significant consumer mind share. Today, several energy platforms such as OPOWER motivate consumers to save money on their bills by empowering them with personal usage data, comparative feedback and tangible steps on how to reduce their energy use. Indeed, OPOWER has had success in changing consumer behavior, reporting that such passive (one-way) engagement does empower consumers to take action – with participating consumers averaging 1.5% to 3% in energy savings over a control.

Interestingly, the introduction of rewards may be able to accelerate and sustain such energy savings by providing a greater financial incentive (bill savings + rewards earnings) for a consumer to take action. Such a model turns passive consumers into active ones that are more likely to engage with home energy tools, to open ongoing communications and to purchase energy-saving products. Such a hybrid (passive/active) model was first suggested in a study, “Residential Energy Use Behavior Change Pilot”, authored by Carroll, et. al.*

Indeed, this was an impetus for RecycleBank to partner with Efficiency 2.0 to launch of two energy platforms this year – CUB Energy Saver (Commonwealth Edison) and Western Mass Saves (Northeast Utilities).  Such platforms provide direct outreach to all consumers while providing the potential to earn rewards by those that actively engage.



Green marketers continue to be challenged by the notion of changing consumer attitudes in order to expand market appeal. Rewards create a shortcut of sorts by providing a direct incentive to motivate the desired behavior change. As a tool for green marketers, they can be a true game changer.

* “Residential Energy Use Behavior Change Pilot” by Ed Carroll and Eric Hatton of Franklin Energy and Mark Brown of Greenway Insights, commissioned by the Office of Energy Security, Minnesota Department of Commerce, April 20, 2009.


Rise of the Peer-To-Peer Green Economy

November 21, 2010

One could argue that the green revolution really took root online with the launch of eBay. Or perhaps Craigslist. Connecting individual sellers with millions of potential buyers brought the neighborhood garage sale (or local classifieds) to the masses, and with it, the ability to extend the product lifecycle of used, yet still useful, products. As Amy Skoczlas Cole from eBay said, “The greenest product is the one that already exists.”

Such peer-to-peer ‘connective’ consumption has long existed offline. Online models like eBay connect individuals at massive scale, while overcoming transaction barriers through the use of seller reviews as well as secure payment mechanisms like PayPal.

Such models challenge the notion of permanent ownership, and with it the environmental impact that it brings. Instead, ownership is viewed as a temporary or altogether unnecessary condition required for realizing product benefits. Products such as cars, beds, clothes, lawnmowers and drills often lay idle and available for use if only those that are in need connect with those that have. Collectively, many have dubbed such transactions ‘collaborative’ consumption because they require the involvement of a community network to make them liquid.

Today, there are at least three peer-to-peer (P2P) models emerging that can facilitate greener transactions:

Rent. Today, there are many businesses that rent, instead of sell, products to consumers including Netflix, Zipcar and RentTheRunway to name a few. Shared products have a lower environmental footprint, of course, requiring fewer products overall to be produced to meet demand.

Recently, P2P models have emerged that allow consumers to rent products that they own including a spare bed (CouchSurfing), car (Spride, Getaround), even a wedding dress (Zilok). Such models leverage social networks to provide reviews and referrals for products and participants, as well as mobile apps that take advantage of location-based capabilities.

Exchange. Increasingly, consumers can facilitate the exchange of goods through trading, bartering or gifting. Such transactions reduce demand for new products by extending the lifecycle of existing ones. Such models provide a more flexible and open ended way to facilitate exchanges than with money. For example, FreeCycle users to make products available free-of-charge to those that are want to take them. In contrast, ThredUp facilitates the exchange of children’s clothes between peers but expects participants first to give clothes to a member in the community before accepting clothing in return. Similarly, Swap enables members to exchange books, CDs, movies and video games. What you can get depends on whether others want what you have to give.

Use Virtual Currency. Consumers can facilitate transactions through the use of virtual currencies that provide many of the benefits of a legal tender – the ability to accumulate, bank and borrow – without actually having to be legal tender. Such currencies work well in networked communities that rely on shared services to deliver a product or service. The Superfluid, for example, is a collaborative social network in which members conduct peer-to-peer transactions by exchanging “favors” for virtual currency. Here, a marketplace has been established where by individuals offer their services (say, web development) in exchange for Quids and then, in turn, spend Quids on services that they need (copy writing).

Certainly, there is the potential to leverage such networks in the green space. Perhaps Quids could be exchanged for environmental services such as conducting a home energy audit or preparing a social corporate responsibility report for a small business.

For consumers, such peer-to-peer transactions are a natural evolution of social networks. Such transactions will continue to grow as mechanisms for transacting become more seamless and consumers become accustomed to more unconventional methods of exchange.

Marketers will be challenged to participate in a meaningful way in such peer-to-peer transactions. Some like eBay and Zilok make it easy by allowing both individuals and businesses to facilitate exchanges. Alternatively, advertising on the largest exchange sites is certainly an option. This is particularly opportunistic for brands naturally aligned with such models including shipping companies, for example. Additionally, businesses should take advantage of such exchanges to launch new offerings such as pay-by-the-day insurance for those that seek to rent a peer’s car, for example. New models that reduce consumption are not necessarily bad for business – they are simply unleashing new opportunities for companies that can play a role in their facilitation.


Green Product Paradox: When Too Much Good Is Bad for the Environment

October 4, 2010

A common mantra in green marketing is that if you want the masses to buy your product, focus your messaging on more traditional attributes such as price, quality or service.  A product’s “greenness” is likely secondary for many mainstream consumers. For green marketers then, the holy grail may be to offer a product that is competitive on dimensions both traditional and eco-friendly.  This would result in the greatest number of products sold and greatest impact on the environment.

But, things are not always that simple.  Consider the scenario when an innovative green product spurs new demand across an entire product category, rather than just replaces the existing generation of products in market. Is the individual product still green if the aggregate impact of the category is greater than what it replaced? 

Take, for example, household lighting.  Most of us are aware that switching from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs can result in a dramatic reduction in energy use.  But, overall adoption has been relatively modest in comparison to the potential market, likely due to the premium price commanded for the bulbs. 

Today, an even newer generation of lighting technology is on the commercial horizon.  Solid state lighting, described as a “souped up” version of the light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are commonly used today to illuminate electronic displays on alarm clocks and audio equipment, promises to provide lighting at a fraction of the energy used by today’s bulbs.  (“Not Such a Bright Idea”, The Economist, August 26, 2010)  Mass adoption of such technology could have significant implications for the environment given that 6.5% of the world’s energy is used for illumination.

In many ways, we should celebrate such technology fixes given their benefits to the environment.  For marketers, solid state lighting clearly has the potential to be one of those “holy grail products”. Yet, green products such as solid state lighting also present a paradox in that their adoption in mass might actually be detrimental to the environment. How could this be the case?  Well, according to J Y Tsao and colleagues at the Sandia National Laboratory, cheaper lighting that sips energy will likely increase overall demand and uses for light, and with it, overall energy consumption.  (J Y Tsao, et. al., “Solid-State Lighting: An Energy-Economics Perspective”, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics, August 19, 2010)

The rationale? Today, Tsao et. al., contends that consumers underconsume indoor light – with current fixtures providing 1/10th of the illumination as ambient outdoor light on cloudy days and 1/60th of ambient outdoor light on sunny ones.  Tsao rationalizes that there is plenty of room to consume more – including in new ways that have yet to be thought of.

As evidence, Tsao et. al., models historical lighting use and adoption rates for new technologies – from gas lanterns to fluorescent bulbs – and extrapolates forward demand based on the amount of light produced (measured in lumens) and cost per lumen.

Historic trends clearly indicate that consumer demand greatly increased when cost dropped and other attributes – such as faster turn on/off and greater cleanliness – expanded lighting uses.  Extrapolating into the future, Tsao et. al., predicts that with solid state lighting, demand has the potential to increase10x by 2030 and with it, perhaps a 2x increase in energy use.  How paradoxical. 

It is important to note that the green product paradox is not isolated to LED lighting.  Increased demand for electric cars, for example, could result in a similar dilemma if the added electricity load needed to power the vehicles is generated using higher polluting coal.

As such, the green product paradox presents quite the challenge for a marketer.  For individual companies, such products can be both profitable and (at least appear) socially responsible.   It is only by looking at the forest from the trees – and perhaps a little into the future – does it become apparent that, in aggregate, such products may, paradoxically, have a negative impact.

A sustainable brand might try itself to mitigate any impact that its products may have.  But, this will only have broad impact if it ultimately compels competitors to follow suit.  Given this, marketers should recognize that a solution to the paradox may not lie within an individual company’s grasp.  Alternatively, it may take an industry consortium to make the necessary product changes or evolve consumer expectations.  Or, it may take collaboration across industries to have lasting impact.  In both examples cited above, a shift to lower-polluting sources for energy generation would mitigate an increase in demand for both products.

Overall, the green product paradox presents a difficult challenge for green marketers.  Doing good for the planet may not always be as a simple as motivating purchase of greener goods.  In some cases, it just might be too much of a good thing.


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.


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