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.


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 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.


Driving Adoption of Renewable Energy: Part II – An Energy Marketer’s Perspective

September 1, 2008

Interview with Adam Capage, Director, Utility Partnerships, 3Degrees

 

With the #1 renewable energy program in the US, the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) must be doing something right.  In fact, despite a formidable price hurdle, CPAU has managed to sign up over 20% of Palo Alto residents for clean energy, and is not finished yet.

 

Notably, when CPAU decided to aggressively market renewable energy to its customers, it decided to reach beyond traditional utility circles to engage the right marketing partner.  For that, CPAU turned to 3Degrees to educate consumers and convert them to clean energy.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Adam Capage, Director of Utility Partnerships at 3Degrees.  We spoke of the challenges that marketers face when trying to shift consumers to renewable energy, the approach that 3Degrees takes and reasons why it has been so successful.  Here are his words:

 

MG: How do you partner with utilities?

 

AC: Essentially, we partner with utilities by leveraging their brand and their customer connections [and combine it] with our knowledge of how to talk to people about why they’d want to support renewable energy. 

 

The Palo Alto partnership was [our] first utility partnership [formed] in 2003.  When we partnered with Palo Alto, they had already had a green program operating for three years and it had not yet reached 1% participation. 

 

In many ways Palo Alto had the ideal demographics for marketing this product.  And so it’s very tempting to just think “Well hey, its Palo Alto, of course they’re at 20%”.  But, the product did exist for three years [before involvement by 3Degrees] without hitting 1%.  So, it’s a combination.  Yes, demographics are key.  But, you do have to talk to [consumers] repeatedly and get the messages out there and that’s what we’ve been focusing on. 

 

Since 2003, the participation rate has basically sloped upward the whole time.  Today, we’re actually over 20% now and we haven’t seen any slowing.  We keep kind of wondering if and when it will slow, but it hasn’t. 

 

Traditional thought was that there was low hanging fruit [to acquire] and then it would get harder to acquire people over time.  Instead, it seems that you can create new low hanging fruit.  As you talk to people, you make [renewable] an accessible, appealing product to new groups.  Another possibility is just that Palo Alto has such a huge percentage of their population with [the] perfect demographics [for purchasing renewable energy] that you can get an incredibly high penetration rate.

 

MG: Do you tailor your message to particular subgroups within the city?

 

AC:  No.  The real challenge is that renewable energy requires people to pay a premium and they have absolutely nothing [tangible] to show for it.  People for a long time tried to compare this to organic food or bottled water or other premium product.  And, you just can’t do that because with bottled water people think they’re getting [a personal benefit like] cleaner water.  With organic food they might be stopping themselves from having pesticides.  [Unlike with renewable energy], it’s not just about the public good.

 

[Marketing clean energy] is like a request for people to make a private contribution to a public good.  And that’s just damn hard. 

 

I think that the best parallel is public radio and TV knowing that people understand that the programs are very likely to continue whether or not they pay up, but they do it anyway.  With renewable energy we need to put a line item on the bill that says you pay more.  It’s very hard to make people get connected to what they’ve done.  So we try but you know we can’t be in the home everyday like public radio or TV. 

 

We focus on a message that you can make a difference and there are specific environmental benefits to purchasing renewable energy.  We link [environmental benefits] to specific energy usage and [provide] examples of benefits that are local.  And then we repeatedly try to get that message out there.

 

MG: Do you focus your message on awareness or consideration for purchase?

 

AC: When we start each [partnership], it is like going back to 2003 in Palo Alto; you start from ground zero.  It’s a cluttered market and it’s hard to break through so awareness is definitely our first battle.  

 

With Palo Alto I think that awareness has come a very long way.  I don’t think they’ve done research recently, but I bet it’s pretty high  so now we’ve got messages that simply say “just do it”.

 

MG:  What is average price premium for renewable energy?

 

AC:  It varies quite a bit around the country based on the premium for clean energy, current electricity rates and the amount of energy that is consumed.

 

In California the average household uses something like 500 or 600 kilowatt hours a month, where as we have a partner, Amerin, that is based in St. Louis.  Its Missouri customers use on average 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.

 

The premium for Palo Alto [residents] that convert [to renewable energy] is going to be between $5 and $7 per month I think.  For our partnership in Amerin, it’s closer to $15 per month on average. 

 

MG:  Aren’t renewable energy prices independent of oil price shifts?

 

AC:  The programs aren’t designed that way.  A few [utility tariffs] in the country are actually designed where the renewable energy price is essentially substituted on people’s bills for their traditional fuel.  Those programs have seen great success.   Everyone understands why they’ve seen [success] as they have a whole new message to talk about: price stability because [the price of] renewables never change.

 

Most programs are designed where the renewable energy premium is on top of what they already pay.  So the thinking [by consumers] is renewable energy is more expensive.  You aren’t actually getting the electricity from [specific] wind turbines anyway.  What your dollars are doing is allowing the utility make more investments in putting renewable energy into the overall mix.

 

Hence the public good part: your electricity comes on just like everybody else’s except you pay more.

 

MG: Are you actually paying for 100% equivalent renewable energy?

 

AC:  Yes.  Not every program in the country is designed the same. But, our five partnerships are all 100% usage.

 

MG: What are the key customer insights for purchase of renewable energy?

 

AC:  A few people talk about new technology and want to support it.  A few people talk about fuel prices going through the roof and we are beholden to the Middle East, so they want to support another source. But the majority just says “I want to make a difference”.  It seems like one small step, one small opportunity for [consumers] to do that.

 

MG:  Can the success of Palo Alto be replicated across the country or is this an anomaly?

 

AC:  20% might be an anomaly but I know that, in general, these [renewable energy] programs are underperforming.  We have five like I said.  One of them just started and so it only has a couple tenths of a percent participation.  But all together our five average 7.8% participation.  The industry average is 1.8%.  You can do this better.

 

MG:  What’s the secret?

 

AC:  I think that the partnership model is a really good one.  The utility has the customer’s eyes and contacts and, in most cases, the customer’s trust.  That is certainly true in Palo Alto.

 

3Degrees brings the messaging and dedication to execution.  The single best thing we’ve found is that you collect information about what channels and messages are working well and you just execute again and again and again and again. 

 

That’s not what utilities do; they are not marketing organizations.  We do the marketing behind their brand and no one ever knows our name.  We want it that way.

 

MG:  Do you think that the social narrative has changed given Al Gore’s movie a few years ago and just the growing reality and awareness of global warming?  Has that context enabled you to move the needle further?

 

AC:  It definitely helps.  We were out in front of movie theaters when Al Gore’s movie was released.  We set up tables outside to intercept people came out of the movie.

 

MG:  When you target utility customers, what kind of marketing campaign do you implement?

 

AC:  The campaign is continuous.  Email, bill insert, direct mail, events.  We’re spending money and testing different channels all the time except TV.

 

Yard signs are also used to bring to peoples’ attention that their neighbors have done this.  We get requests [for signs] saying I want to show people that I did this.

 

MG: Were there other ways that you tapped viral marketing or activated influencers?

 

AC:  We did holiday card campaign where we sent all Palo Alto participants a card that they could send to their friends saying “I participated in Palo Alto Green and you can too”.

 

We offer wind tours where we let participants come and then, hopefully, tell other people about going to a wind farm and seeing what their money is supporting. 


Driving Adoption of Renewable Energy: Part I – A Utility’s Perspective

August 31, 2008

Interview with Tom Auzenne, Assistant Director, City of Palo Alto Utilities

 

Electrical power generation accounts for 40% of total annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the US.  Such a high concentration of GHGs is due to our reliance on highly polluting fossil fuels, especially domestic coal.  Yet, while the popular press focuses on the recent growth in renewable energy, it still provides only 2% of our total electrical needs today. 

 

Until recently, many arguments have been made for why adoption of clean energy remains slow.  Certainty, price ranks as the #1 barrier to broader adoption.  Other factors include reliability concerns and lack of education about the technologies.

 

Interestingly, Palo Alto, California has bucked this trend.  Over the course of several years, the municipal utility has partnered with 3Degrees, a utility marketing company, to encourage residents to sign up for its PaloAltoGreen program which provides 100% renewable energy from wind and solar power sources.  The results of this program have been astounding, with over 20% of all residents switching to clean energy.  Indeed, PaloAltoGreen is now ranked as the #1 green energy program nationwide based on participation.  

  

What does this mean for GHG reduction?  Well, it is quite simple: the purchase of 41.5M kWh of renewable energy translates into a reduction of 350,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak independently with both Tom Auzenne from the City of Palo Alto Utilities. We spoke about consumer interest in renewable energy, barriers for greater adoption by consumers and key reasons for this program’s success.  Here is what Tom Auzenne had to say:

MG: Who purchases renewable energy in Palo Alto?  What is the mix between residential, commercial and governmental entities?

 

TA: PaloAltoGreen (PAG) is the City of Palo Alto’s 100% renewable energy optional program open to all residential and commercial customers with an active electric service provide by the City of Palo Alto Utilities. The program has about 20% of the customers involved, with residential customers making up on average 95% of the mix and the commercial customers at 5%. Our residential sales account for roughly 60% of the program sales with commercial and governmental making up the rest. 

 

However, starting with July 2008, both the City of Palo Alto (CPA) and the Regional Water Quality Plant (RWQCP) are increasing their commitment to buy renewable energy equal to 30% of their total usage, a ten-fold leap from the previous 3% of total usage purchases.  This will increase the percentage of nonresidential customers in the program.

 

MG: Describe the demographics of your average residential customer that signs up for renewable energy?  How do they differ from the average utility customer in Palo Alto?  Across the US?

 

TA: As a general rule, the residential PAG customer is well educated, in a high income household and is environmentally progressive.  Most are thinking about their environmental impact and want to do something about it.

 

One of the primary differences from other green pricing program around the country is that PAG customers generally use less energy per month than our average customer.  PAG customers use 400-600 kilowatt hours (kWh) per month compared to the national average of about 888 kWh (according to the DOE).  This indicates that our customers may also be trying to reduce their electricity usage through energy efficiency or other measures.

 

MG: What motivates residents of Palo Alto to switch to renewable energy (e.g., attitude toward the environment, concern for their kids, financial incentives, community empowerment, etc.)?  Are their attitudes substantially different than the rest of Americas?  If so, in what ways?

 

TA: There are many motivations leading to program participation. These include being role models for the next generation, “doing the right thing” for the environment, and buying renewables as a logical next step after energy efficiency.

 

CPAU strives to communicate the environmental benefits of renewable energy to Palo Altans in as many ways as possible. Combine this near constant communication with high community awareness of the issues surrounding climate change, and you have the combination that brought PAG such success.
 
  
We also work closely with the Palo Alto Unified School District on energy and curriculum.  Many customers not participating in PAG have taken a more direct approach, and have installed their own photovoltaic (PV) systems rather than buy renewable energy from the market. Between January 2007 and March 2008, 92 PV systems were installed in Palo Alto, representing 250 kW of generation.

 

MG: What, if any, is the premium charged for purchasing renewable energy (vs. non-renewable) today?  What factors do you attribute to a customer’s willingness to pay such a premium (e.g., level of affluence, attitude regarding the environment, etc)?  Do you think renewable energy will be adopted by a majority of customers without eliminating the premium altogether?

 

TA: Residential and small commercial customers can enroll in PAG for 100% of their monthly electric usage at a premium of 1.5 cents/kWh. Large commercial and industrial customers can buy renewable energy in blocks of 1,000 kWh for $15 per block. This allows them to support renewable energy at a level that makes business sense.

 

One of the nice things about PAG is that the price doesn’t fluctuate. CPAU hasn’t changed the price for 100% renewable energy in five years and has no plans to do so. The demographics of Palo Alto are also great for marketing renewable energy, as our customers tend to be interested in the environment and can have a level of disposable income that allows a lower barrier to participation.  

 

MG: A 20% adoption rate for renewable energy is impressive.  Can this success be replicated across the country?  If so, what will it take to do so?  If not, what are the obstacles (e.g., low awareness, lack of urgency, difficult process to switch, price premium, etc.)?   

 

TA: With the continuous support of our local elected officials on the City Council, the staff of the City government, the employees of the Utilities Department, and, of course, our great customers, nearly everyone is behind this program. This type of support is vital to the success of a green pricing program in Palo Alto and elsewhere in the country.

 

Other factors that need to be in-place, or created, include customer awareness of the environment, a history of energy efficiency, an active partnership with the schools and students, and a willingness to lead.

 

It should be noted that not all the program participants have vast disposable incomes. Participants are both young and old, in the prime of their earning years or on fixed incomes, have children or are childless. All share, however, the same vision of, and desire for, a sustainable future.

 

MG: What are your primary marketing objectives in the residential and commercial markets?  Do you find the need to spend significant time building awareness of either the category or the technology?

 

TA: CPAU has found that targeted messaging, repetition, clear information about the product and a call to action (“closing the sale”) bring results. If the job is done correctly, then customers are aware.

 

For those customers that have more questions, we have many ways for them to find answers to any question that they might have.

 

MG: Is there any skepticism on the part of consumers regarding the (reduced) impact that renewable energy has on the environment? 

 

TA: There are always skeptics, but we focus on educating consumers on the positive aspects of the renewable energy we provide.  With the melting of the North Pole ice and the retreating of the Swiss glaciers, featured on the Evening News, skepticism has been reduced or eliminated.

 

MG: Please describe how you partner with 3Degrees in terms of your marketing efforts.  What are the core components of these marketing efforts?  What made them so successful?

 

TA: 3Degrees specializes in marketing renewable energy. They have partnerships with utilities in California and around the country. They are able draw on their experience and accumulated data to provide targeted marketing and program management support.

 

CPAU brings its knowledge, reputation and trust of the community to this partnership to help sharpen the marketing even more. With their experience and our community awareness, we have created one of the most effective, and successfully marketed, green power programs in the country.


Open Skies Agreement Provides a Glimpse of What’s to Come in a Carbon-Regulated Environment

March 29, 2008

Today, many executives, and especially those working in carbon-intensive industries, are grappling with how future carbon regulation may impact their businesses and industries.   

To deal with uncertainty regarding such strategic issues, many corporate executives turn to scenario planning or even game theory to think about how the future competitive environment may unfold and how it may impact their companies.  By doing so, corporate executives are, in effect, peering into the future to get a glimpse of what may come. 

Given its contribution to climate change, expected growth rate and evolving regulatory environment, the commercial airline industry presents an interesting case study to learn how competitive dynamics may change in a carbon-regulated environment. 

Today, airlines are responsible for emitting 2-4% of greenhouse gases from manmade sources.  Significant gains in fuel economy have been made with each generation of aircraft; the new Boeing 787, for example, promises a 20% increase in fuel efficiency.  Yet, total emissions continue to rise as industry growth (4.4%) has outpaced fuel economy (1.3%) by more than 3:1. 

There have been attempts made to regulate carbon emitted from commercial aviation.  The Kyoto Protocol, for example, counts emissions from domestic airline sources in its targets.  Emissions from international travel are omitted, however.  

While there is growing support to include international aviation under any successor treaty to Kyoto, it is far from certain that this will happen.  As such, the EU has taken unilateral action by imposing higher landing fees based on a plane’s greenhouse gas emissions (pending parliamentary approval).  This arrangement would include not only internal EU flights (by 2011) but, very importantly, international flights that take off or land from the EU (by 2012).   

By doing so, the EU is flexing its muscle, establishing its authority to regulate carbon emissions for companies that operate, but are not based, within the EU.  While similar to how more terrestrial multi-national corporations operate today, this is groundbreaking in the airline industry: historically the industry was regulated through bilateral negotiations or the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization.  In effect, the EU is simultaneously balancing growth objectives in aviation with its efforts to mitigate environmental impact.   

The Open Skies agreement between the US and the EU is a great example of this.  Tomorrow, Phase I of this agreement goes into effect.  Its primary impact will be to provide open access for airlines to fly between the US and the EU.   

Not surprisingly, this agreement has caused a heated debate.  While the EU expects an increase of up to 26 million additional leisure travelers over the next five years (representing a 14% increase in passengers), there are many that cry foul and accuse the EU of undermining its own efforts to reduce global warming.  In fact, adding the new passengers may increase global emissions by the airline industry up to 0.7%.      

But, that is not all.  Changes in emissions do not include additional business travelers or air freight.  Moreover, this number represents the net increase in air travelers only; it does not include those who may substitute international travel for their current domestic travel due to price declines.  A shift to longer-haul flights to the EU has the potential to increase air travel distance. As a result, global emissions from the airline industry may increase by 2.8% more, for a total of 3.5% rather than 0.7%.  Off a global base of 2.3 billion air travelers, this is a significant increase in carbon emissions from a single bilateral trade agreement.

To balance growth with the environment, the EU will require airlines to participate in an emission trading system that will provide the incentive for airlines to both reduce overall emissions and offset the rest.  While implementation will be gradual, the result will be to create a dynamic case study by which we can discern how the competitive environment will be transformed as carbon regulations take hold.  Here is how the scenario may unfold: 

Governments may wield new influence to demand higher standards.  In the aftermath of the Kyoto negotiations, there is a belief that substantive progress on climate change will be held back by a few, albeit influential, nations.  While this is possible, there is another scenario that is more likely given the interdependence of the global economy: higher standards will be achieved by using economic leverage to achieve them. 

The Open Skies agreement is a classic example of this.  The US wants more access to European markets for US carriers while the EU has clearly tied this access to increased regulation on carriers. 

Indeed, the rhetoric has been intense.  Jacques Barrot, the EU’s transport commissioner, has made it clear that the EU was prepared to “[reduce] the number of flights or [suspend] certain rights” if EU emission regulation were not honored.  Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has vowed to fight the unilateral imposition of emissions caps by the EU.   

Such opposing views reflect public opinion: while 40% of Britons support an increase in airline fares to reduce global warming, only 20% of Americans say they do.  Nonetheless, there is a growing consensus that the US will acquiesce under a new presidency. 

Public sentiment may accelerate action before regulation takes effect.  JPMorgan predicts that required carbon offsets under the Open Skies agreement will not significantly increase prices until 2015 or beyond: 87% of the necessary permits will be distributed for free to incumbent airlines, reducing pass through costs to consumers.  Instead of an estimated €20 surcharge, international passengers may pay an additional €4 per roundtrip in the foreseeable future (though rising substantially after 2020). 

Nonetheless, public sentiment will not likely stand still – especially in light of the 3-year, $300 million campaign that Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is expected to launch next month to raise awareness and change people’s minds regarding the environment.  As JPMorgan points out, it is likely that “carriers that present themselves as unconcerned about environmental degradation or deny the airline industry’s responsibility to address the problem could find themselves targets of activist campaigns, with negative implications for both public image and revenue.”   

As such, Marketing Green recommends that airlines stay ahead of public sentiment, regardless of the status of environmental regulation.  This can be done by publicly recognizing the challenge and by taking action steps to reduce its environmental impact directly from air travel or ancillary services such as travel to and from the airport. 

This is all the more important for carriers flying on international routes.  The Open Skies agreement, for example, will likely increase competition between airlines as more airlines establish direct routes between US and EU destinations.  US airlines must be sensitive to European concerns about the environment, for example, if they are to win a share of the market. 

Even in a carbon regulated market, green remains a differentiator.  By imposing carbon emission fees, the EU is effectively setting a minimum standard for an airline to be green.  In effect, the imposition of regulation resets the competitive environment by clearly defining what it means to be green and insulating companies from further criticism if they meet the standards set by government.   

While this is generally true, companies should recognize that even with standards in place, green will remain a powerful market driver.   

For example, airlines will still be vulnerable to activists who call them out for not being consistently green across their operations.  While regulation offsets the impact of aviation fuel, it does not necessarily apply to corporate operations, the ground crews servicing the plane, or even the manufacturing of the plane itself, for example.   

Moreover, customer needs are evolving and airlines need to adjust their offering to align with them.  For example, KPMG UK currently offers its 11,000 employees additional Membership Rewards points on their American Express cards if they take a mode of transportation that has less impact on the environment (trains versus planes).  They are also promoting greater use of teleconferencing which reduces travel time and environmental impact altogether. 

Airlines are starting to respond.  For example, on trans-Atlantic flights to Paris, Continental Airlines offers connecting rail service to Lyon.  Moreover, Silverjet, a new player in the premium category, was the first to become carbon neutral, embedding carbon offsets in its ticket purchase price.  

Marketers should carefully watch how the Open Skies agreement unfolds with time.  The agreement provides a window into how governments may negotiate carbon emission reductions in the future, as well as how marketers could respond to changing consumer sentiment and needs in a carbon-regulated 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.

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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.


Corporations Foster Dialogue On the Environment

January 14, 2008

While many corporations leverage the Internet to distribute information about environmental initiatives, a few companies are going much further by facilitating two-way dialogue with stakeholders.   

Some companies may view such dialogue – via email, web forums, chat rooms and video – as risky, as it may open them up to public scrutiny.  Moreover, this sentiment may be especially true today for those brands that compete in carbon-intensive industries. 

Nonetheless, companies that are bold enough to enter into a dialogue tend to find that the rewards outweigh the risks.  Dialogue creates a direct channel to stakeholders that can be used to gather feedback, build credibility, and engender more loyalty by showing a more human side of the company. 

In other cases, companies are using dialogue to activate stakeholders – including customers, suppliers, employees, partners and shareholders – as change agents by soliciting new ideas. 

There are several examples of dialogue in the environmental space.  Here are just a few: 

British Telecom: It seems that on most corporate sites today, users are hard pressed to find a specific contact to forward their concerns to, let along an email address that does not deliver to a general mailbox. 

BT is different in this regard as it offers a detailed listing of contact names and email addresses to send questions specifically regarding corporate social responsibility, corporate environment programs and environmental supply chain management.

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Shell: Shell periodically conducts webcasts with senior-level executives on topics such as its annual Sustainability Report.  Interviews address questions solicited from stakeholders via email.   

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Dell: When Michael Dell declared that he wanted to build the “greenest PC on earth,” his company launched IdeaStorm as a platform to solicit “direct feedback from, [its] customers, suppliers and stakeholders” on how to do just that.  Moreover, IdeaStorm engages its stakeholders as change agents by encouraging them to promote their ideas and discuss them online with Dell and other users.

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General Motors: Chevrolet just announced a bold move in the green space by inviting the public to enter into a direct dialogue regarding GM flagship division and actions that it is taking to reduce its environmental impact. Through a New York Times advertisement, Beth Lowery, GM Vice President for Environment, Energy and Safety Policy asked the public to “talk” with Chevy about mutual concerns for the environment and what Chevy is doing to address them.   

Lowery asks the public to submit questions through a New York Times microsite that will be published in the Friday Op/Ed section.

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While many marketers perceive direct dialogue as too risky, many companies have fully engaged with stakeholders on many sensitive topics including the environment.  For many, a direct channel to the customer provides a way to generate feedback as well as to solicit new ideas.  Others focus on creating a more human way to connect with stakeholders. 

Regardless, dialogue is consistent with key attributes of leading green brands including accountability, transparency and credibility. More companies need to overcome their fear of potential negative feedback and join the dialogue on green issues. If done correctly, dialogue will more likely mitigate than engender consumer backlash in the future.  

(Full disclosure: GM is a Digitas client)


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