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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greening Consumption

An Interview with Michel Gelobter, Founder and EVP of Cooler

Long-time environmental activist Paul Hawkins once described “green consumerism” as an oxymoron.  Indeed, “green consumption” makes Wikipedia’s “List of Genuine Oxymora”.   The reason: consumption by its very nature has an impact on the environment – to some degree or another – and therefore, is hard to call truly green.

 

Yet, short of reducing consumption, many consumers, manufacturers and retailers are focusing on greener consumption – a term which implies shifting to products and services that have a lower environmental impact, though in many cases, not specifying by how much.

 

Today, there are positive signs that demand for greener products is increasing sharply.  In fact, the Natural Marketing Institute reports that the $200+ billion Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) market is expected to double by 2010 and quadruple by 2015.  

There are many online retailers and content sites that offer green products directly or simply help consumers navigate the market.  They include three primary categories:

Green online retailers: Many online retailers have emerged that are dedicated to serving the green market including Buy Green, Earth Friendly Goods, Eco ChoicesEcoWise, Gaiam, Green Feet, Green Home, Green Shop (UK), Green Shopper, Green Shopping (UK), Green Store, Indigenous, Natural Collection (UK), Nigel’s Eco Store (UK), Rogue Natural Living, Shop Green (PriceGrabber), The Green Office and VivaTerra among others.

General online retailers. Several general merchandisers and portals have embedded a green section into their existing offering, including Amazon and MSN among others.

Green directories: Finally, other online sites have positioned themselves as green directories, product search engines and shopping guides.  Sites include EcoBusinessLink, EcoMall, EcoSeek, Evolvist, Evolve Shopping, Green Deals Daily, Great Green Goods (blog), Green People, Green Providers Directory (UK), Green Shopping Guide (UK), Guide Me Green (UK), Haute*Nature (blog) National Green Pages, Pristine Planet, and TheFindGreen among others.  Perhaps the most comprehensive guide to online eco-friendly shopping is published by thepurplebook

Yet, despite this growth rate, LOHAS spending is still a drop in the budget when it comes to US consumer buying power – estimated at more that $10 trillion in 2007.  As such, the greater challenge is to shift spending on mainstream products to greener ones and do so in a way that also provides the incentive for mainstream manufacturers to reduce the carbon footprint of their products over time.

There are many ways to motivate the purchase of greener products across the purchase funnel.  Here are a few examples:

Make existing products greener.  Product companies have the opportunity to green their products – including sourcing, use and disposal.  Greening a product in the first place, of course, is the best way to reduce its environmental footprint.  Companies are motivated to do so for a variety of reasons including increased consumer demand, pressure from partners across the supply chain and risk to the brand simply by being complacent.

One of the best examples is Wal-Mart.  For example, it has identified $10 billion in potential savings simply by decreasing product packaging.  It has also required its suppliers to reduce the environmental impact of the products that it sells (eg, more concentrated laundry detergent formulas reduce the use of energy for transportation) while expanding the market for others (eg, by selling fluorescent bulbs at lower cost under its own private label). 

Due perhaps, in part, to Wal-Mart’s pressure and lead, Procter & Gamble has responded with a commitment to sell $20 billion worth of greener products over the next five years.  It has also joined the Supply Chain Leadership Coalition, an industry organization that pressures suppliers to publish information on carbon emissions, to help it reduce the impact of its suppliers as well.

 

Motivate greener choices.  Product companies and retailers can influence behavior by interjecting green as a considered attribute in the purchase decision.  There are several ways to do so including the use of eco-labels, ratings, promotional benefits or green rewards tied to a loyalty program.  Eco-labels and ratings impact consumer purchase decisions by providing relevant environmental information at the point of sale – and indirectly motivate greener product design and manufacturing decisions by making green a differentiating attribute. 

 

Today, eco-labels are actively being used or under consideration by manufacturers, (eg, HP, Dell), retailer (eg, Wal-Mart, Home Depot) and government regulators.   Moreover, several organizations have taken the lead in developing or aggregating green rating systems including Green Seal, Consumer Report’s Green Choices, the US EPA’s Energy Star and independent Better World Shopper.  Moreover, sites like Alonovo allow users to filter products based on their own green values.

 

Promotional benefits and rewards can also influence consumer purchase behavior.  Marketing Green explores both of these levers in two previous blog entries. (“Green Labels as Drivers of Consumption and Loyalty Programs”, March 19, 2007; “Testing Green Promotional Benefits to Drive Acquisition”, September 16, 2007).

 

Offset environment impact.  Today, more and more companies and consumers are turning to carbon offsets (and renewable energy credits or RECs) to mitigate the environmental impact of products manufactured or purchased.  While the offset mechanism may vary – from purchasing allowances on a carbon exchange to investing in renewable energy projects – the effect is similar: offsets reduce the carbon impact of consumption by effectively removing the equivalent amount from the environment elsewhere. 

 

While carbon offsets are not without controversy, they can be a powerful way to mitigate the impact of consumption.  There are several ways that carbon offsets are purchased today:

 

First, carbon offsets can be voluntary.  Retailers can provide options to do so – as most airline sites do today, for example – or consumers can purchase them directly from many brokers including Atmosfair (Germany) Better World Club, Carbon Fund, Carbon Leaf (UK), Carbon Zero (Canada), Climate Care, Climate Counter, Climate Friendly, ClimatMundi, CO2 Balance, My Climate, Native Energy, Offset Carbon Company (UK), Offsetters (Canada), Solar Electric Light Fund, Sustainable Travel International, Target Neutral (UK), Terrapass, The Carbon Neutral Company, TreeBanking, and Uniglobe Travel among others. 

Typically, retailers play no more than a passive role in facilitating carbon offset purchases by providing the mechanism to do so on their site.  In many cases, it is no more than an additional option available during the check-out process.  The case of Virgin Atlantic is different, however; in response to low voluntary purchases, Virgin is now actively selling carbon offsets to customers while in-flight.  Sunvil Holidays (UK) goes one step further by putting the burden on the consumer to opt-out of – rather than opt-in to – purchasing a carbon offset by embedding it directly into the cost of its vacation packages. 

Second, carbon offsets can be structured into the transaction itself – treated as a promotional expense, embedded in the purchase price or covered as part of the transaction fee.  Companies as diverse as insurance giant Allstate, UK’s Silver Jet and Fiji Water are making their products carbon natural (or even carbon negative) as a way to differentiate their offering.  In this case the product company is absorbing the cost directly or raising its price to cover the added expense. (Interestingly, Allstate is offering to offset the carbon emissions from the automobiles that it insures).

 

Alternatively, credit card transaction fees can be used to offset carbon emissions as well.  Recently, issuers including Barclays, GE, MetaBank, Triodos Bank and Wells Fargo have launched green cards while Bank of America and upstart Brighter Planet have announced their intentions to do so.  These cards divert a portion of their fees to mitigate the impact of the products purchased through a donation to a non-profit organization or direct purchase of carbon offsets. 

 

Such card programs have advantages and disadvantages.  Given their reach, credit cards can green a significant amount of consumer spending simply by providing the incentive to consumers to make their purchases on a card with green benefits.  Yet, to do so, cardholders must trade in personal benefits earned from traditional reward programs (eg, airline miles) for ones that provide more societal benefits.

 

Alternatively, a promising, new retail model has emerged that divert a portion of revenues earned through affiliate marketing programs to pay to offset the carbon from products purchased.  In doing so, sites such as Cooler and Earth Moment enable consumers to purchase products from traditional retailers while offsetting the carbon impact of these purchase in the process.  Such a model is compelling to consumers as, from their perspective, the cost of the carbon offset is absorbed by the retailer and they can green their purchases while using their existing credit cards. 

 

While numerous companies are involved in carbon offsetting, Cooler has clearly been one of the most innovative players in the space.  Distributing 8 million products from 400 retailers, Cooler provides consumers with the largest selection of products that can be purchased with an embedded carbon offset.

 

Recently, I had the opportunity of sitting down with Michel Gelobter, Founder and Executive Vice-President at Cooler.  We discussed the recent launch of his company, its B2B and B2C offerings and the challenges that we all face in greening consumption.  Here are his words:

Marketing Green:  By offsetting the carbon impact of products purchased, Climate Cooler has the potential to change the game in the online retail space.  What was the impetus for starting the company? 

Cooler:  We wanted to find ways to create the momentum in the consumer space for taking action on climate change.  That exploration led to what has now become Cooler.  Cooler is distinguished by being the first site where you can purchase practically anything you can buy on the Internet – except for maybe a plane ticket – in a way that eliminates the global warming impact through the point of sale.   

Our mission as a company is to connect every purchase with a solution for global warming.  We do that with three offerings.  The first is that we use the country’s only product and service carbon calculator that was developed jointly by Carnegie Mellon and Berkeley.   

MG: Does it calculate the entire impact of the product, that is, how it is manufactured, used and disposed of? 

C: It is just to the point of sale: how it is manufactured and transported.  But, the innovative piece is that it adds the retail component which ranges usually from 20-30% of a product’s carbon footprint. 

MG: How about shipping? 

C: Yeah, it includes that too.  But [the environmental impact] tends to be much lower which can be a surprise to our customer base. 

The second piece of this offering is our basket of carbon offsets or pollution prevention and renewable investments that have been unanimously approved by the world’s best environmental organizations.  And finally, we set out to create a basis on which consumers could take action in a way that was trusted and transparent.  And that is what Cooler is about.   

We also give people a way to track their impact and start thinking about carbon budgeting.  We already have the My Impact page which tells [consumers] what they are emitting.  After all, 40% of the average American’s carbon footprint is in consumption of goods and services.  

MG: So do you view part of the value that you bring is educating consumers on their true environmental impact? 

C: In the consumer space, absolutely.   

The bigger piece of the business is really the B2B offering.  Companies started coming to us and saying: “How can I put your works into my gears so when people come to my website – or bricks and mortar store – they can get a carbon neutral product.”

Our B2B offering is called Cooler Compete which is basically a way for companies to know, offset and reduce the global warming impact of the products that they sell.  And the difference is that those companies are going to make a choice about who pays for [the offset].  We think that most of our business customers are going to absorb the costs of carbon neutrality. 

MG: What services are you providing in the B2B space? 

C: First, we are providing the [carbon emission] calculation.  Our calculator is really revolutionary.  We are using a method that is, on average, more accurate [than existing calculators].  It is based on an approach called economic input/output analysis, whereby we calculate the footprint of a product directly through the economy.  Instead of looking at a shoe and saying “where did that leather come from?”, we say “how much of the leather industry did this company use?”.   

Peer-reviewed studies show that this method is, on average, more [inclusive] from an environmental perspective because it includes more of the carbon footprint than [other] analysis. 

The second service is really a reduction service, that is, a list of the top contributors to your carbon impact.  That is usually enough to motivate companies to bench mark against those numbers and reduce their impact.  

Finally, companies buy offsets with us.  We don’t actually make any profit from our offsets – we pass the costs directly through.  But our basket of offsets is very high quality.  

MG: You are ambitious in trying to serve two different audiences with very distinct offerings. 

C: Yes, but the website in some sense can be seen as a technology showcase.  The web site gives [companies] the sense like “Oh, this is what it could look like.”  So that is why the website is really critical.   

MG: In your B2C work, who is the typical customer that you are targeting? 

C: We are partnering with environmental organizations so our early go-to-market strategy is [targeting] the members of our partner organizations.  Now we are trying to move from the environmental group members to more of the LOHAS crowd.  Over time, we will target a broader and broader swath of the American public as more people become conscious of this issue. 

MG: How important is viral to your marketing strategy?

C: Viral would be great.  Right now, we are honing our technology platform to make that more potent.  For example, when you tell a friend, we are able to report back to you how much your friends offset.  We can also have people compete to see who is more carbon neutral.   

MG: How does the B2C business model work?  Is it an affiliate model? 

C: It is.  On average, if we refer someone [to an online retailer that subsequently makes a purchase], we get 6% [of the total sale].  The cost of the [carbon] offset ranges from 0.7 to 1.5% and we keep the rest for the business. 

MG: Are there plans to offset carbon emissions from the use and disposal of the products that you sell? CC: We do not have any plans to address that now. MG: How receptive are consumers today to carbon offsets? 

C:  I think we are easily 10 to 20 years out from having a stable, trustworthy, well-defined commodity market for offsets.  One of the reasons we partnered with the environmental groups is to give consumers assurances that at any moment in time, the best decisions are being made.  

MG: Do you think offsets take on more meaning when the US market moves from a voluntary to a mandated cap and trade system? 

C: No. I think personally that people need to take action now.  Our offsets are additional so they are already above and beyond everything done today.  We follow three criteria that are summarized as follows: real, additional and positive. 

“Real” means that we are taking carbon out of the atmosphere when you buy something.  We are not just meeting the next increment of energy demand with cleaner energy.  We’re actually capturing or reducing an emission somewhere else in the world, hopefully in the United States.   

“Additional” means that this would not have happened where it not for your purchase.   And “positive” means doing more for the world than just helping the climate.  It means helping to create jobs or generate more environmental protection or biodiversity. 

It is going to be a long time before governments are actually cutting emissions by 80%; by 2050, unfortunately.  Until that time and maybe well beyond it, we want to be the place where consumers can know that by acting their doing their part above and beyond what government is doing.  

MG: It is conceivable that your success could provide incentive for others to enter the market and that one day, offsets will simply be a threshold to compete? 

C: Of course, we would love it as a company and a social event if this became a must have.  And we are going to do our best to make sure that happens.  That is one of the reasons why we started the company. 

MG: Will this actually help solve global warming? 

C: I absolutely think it’s a huge part of the solution.  We can not be paralyzed by the fact that shopping and consumption is part of the problem.  We have to go in and fix it.  People have been trading goods for money for a long time and the system’s broken.  And climate change is actually a huge archetype for a wide range of ways to reknit the fabric of shopping with the fabric of community and earth care.

Green Brand Disconnect

This week’s cover story in BusinessWeek featured the experience of Auden Schendler, corporate director of environmental affairs at the Aspen Skiing Company (ASC), as he tried to convince his senior management that going green was worth the investment (“Little Green Lies,” October 29, 2007).

 

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From an outsider’s perspective, one might think that ASC would be highly receptive to eco-friendly investment opportunities, as the company has incorporated green as a core brand pillar and a central theme in its marketing communications.  Yet, as Schendler points out, things are not always at they appear; apparently, ASC is not as green as its brand might suggest.

In one example, Schendler points out that in the past, senior management has resisted even modest investments in proven technologies – such as compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) in hotel rooms – that yield measurable cost savings and a positive ROI.  The rationale: CFLs are not aligned with the brand experience ASC wants for its customers.  As one hotel manager said, “Fluorescent light would suggest a waiting-room ambience, jeopardizing the establishment’s five-star rating.” 

Such a world view, however, does not seem to acknowledge evolving social norms and consumer expectations regarding green.   According to a recent JD Powers Hotel Guest Satisfaction Survey, 75% of hotel guests are willing to participate in environmental programs.  In the luxury hotel category, an even higher percentage of guests are willing to participate: 87% of Baby Boomers, 95% of Gen Xers and 79% Gen Yers.  Based on this consumer data it seems that ASC may be underestimating their guests’ interest in and expectations for green as part of their hotel experience. 

As such, it seems that ASC’s decision not to invest in CFLs may be at odds with current consumer sentiment.  In fact, CFLs have already gone mainstream.  Today, many luxury hotels already use CFLs for lighting.  Their light quality has improved tremendously.  And, retailers are selling them aggressively, despite the fact that incandescent light bulbs are more profitable for them.  In fact, Wal-Mart has sold over 100MM of these bulbs this year alone.  

Moreover, not investing in CFLs seems contrary to ASC’s own brand positioning and communications in the market.  In fact, just weeks before the BusinessWeek article ran, ASC launched a new advertising campaign that, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, used “high-profile skiers and snowboarders to tout the resort operator’s environmental record and urging others to take action, too.”   This campaign is supported by a lightly branded microsite called Save Snow which educates visitors about what ASC is doing and what others can do to reduce climate impact.   

Ironically, the campaign also includes plans to send 40,000 CFLs to its customers.   

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So, marketers should take note.  Consumers are increasingly willing to participate in environmental programs at hotels, and especially at luxury ones.  

Hotels should not be afraid to invest in green initaitives including CFLs.  Not only can such programs provide attractive ROIs, but, for companies such as ASC, they can ensure that the consumer experience aligns with their brand positioning in the market.  For ASC, the decision not to purchase CFLs is, at best, inconsistent with its brand.  At worst, the company risks that its marketing efforts are perceived as green washing.

Greener SimCity Virtual World as Channel to Influence Real World Behaviors

Electronic Arts (EA)’s SimCity, the popular simulation game that challenges users to build and run a metropolis, is set to release its latest version in mid-November – SimCity Societies – and is generating a lot of buzz in the process.  

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One way that sets Societies apart from previous versions is its new functionality that requires users to take economic and environmental factors into consideration when making energy production decisions.  (Other simulation games that require users to make trade-offs between energy and environmental concerns include Energyville, recently launched by Chevron and The Economist Group; ElectroCity, sponsored by Genesis Energy in New Zealand; and My Abode, sponsored by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.)

While this novel functionality is generating significant buzz in the market, the real learnings for green marketers may be how EA and energy giant BP are leveraging the game itself as a marketing channel to influence its audience.  In doing so, EA and BP will have impact across the purchase funnel:

Awareness: As a key sponsor of Societies, BP will place its logo on renewable energy sources throughout the game.  BP is likely betting that branding renewable energy in this virtual world will have a positive impact on brand awareness, favorability and purchase intent in the real world.

Cleverly, while BP plans to place its logo on (not so eco-friendly) gasoline stations within the game, it is purposefully not associating its brand with dirtier energy sources that are used to generate electricity like coal (though this positioning may be somewhat inconsistent with its real-world energy mix).

Consideration: The game itself provides a high impact channel to educate consumers about real-life trade offs that are increasingly required today.  

In this simulation game users make decisions regarding how to meet the growing energy needs as well as how to deal with their consequences over time.  For example, users that choose to fuel industrial growth with low cost, but high polluting energy sources may find themselves facing droughts, heat waves and other weather-related consequences of global warming.  

Ultimately, companies like BP will benefit from such presence if consideration for renewable energy in the virtual world translates into the real-life consideration as a result. 

Purchase: Perhaps the most powerful use of this gaming channel has yet to be explored, that is, driving transactions.  While enabling functionality is not planned for this version, the potential exists to facilitate purchases longer term. 

In a gaming environment there are several ways in which real-world transactions could take place.  One way could be to allow users to sign up for or indicate interest in renewable energy directly through the gaming environment or an associated micro site. 

Moreover, it may even be possible to exchange Simoleans, or SimCity virtual currency, to purchase renewable energy in the real world over time.  This would be similar to the way virtual Linden dollars can be exchanged for real dollars in the popular virtual world of Second Life.

So, marketers should take note. Gaming is an emerging channel that may be used to reach new audiences and influence behaviors across the purchase funnel.  The virtual world of SimCity Societies requires users to make economic and environmental trade-offs similar to those that we increasingly confront today.    For marketers like BP, such an immersive environment offers the chance not only to influence awareness and consideration in a virtual world, but to shape behaviors that impact the bottom line in the real one.

Green Marketing as a Vehicle for Consumer Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Disclosure: American Express is a client of Digitas)

Greening Your Brand in a Web 2.0 World

Last Friday, I have the pleasure of moderating a panel at the Sustainable Brands conference in New Orleans.  Panel participants included: 

  • Susan Space, Director, Brands & Advertising, at Sun Microsystems
  • Brian Reich, Director of New Media at Cone, a brand and cause marketing agency, and
  • Janet Eden-Harris, CEO of Umbria, a marketing intelligence company.  

I have included my opening remarks below (and will follow up with the transcript of the discussion when it becomes available):

Web 2.0 enable consumers to participate, share and collaborate online like never before.  And whether you are a B2B or B2C marketer, you probably have noticed that consumers are embracing these technologies not only to participate but to control and dictate when, where and how they want to be communicated to. 

Today, consumers view six times the number of ads that they did 20 years ago. And not surprisingly, customers feel inundated and are tuning them out.  (Ad Age, February 4, 2006) In fact, consumers are finding ways to opt out of viewing our advertising altogether by using Pop-up blockers, spam filters, and DVRs and by signing up for Do Not Call Lists and even Do Not Mail Lists. 

At the same time, they are opting in to view content of their choosing by using blog readers like Technorati, customzied news feeds like NewsVine or even signing up for emails with green lifestyle tips from sites like the Daily Green. 

Today, more and more consumers are active contributors online, and in the process, blurring the distinctions between advertising and content and between consumer and publisher.  In this new world, ads are no longer the stuff that fills the gaps between the content.  Content, in effect, is advertising.  And, advertising is increasingly distributed as content.   With nearly 50% of consumers generating – or perhaps I should say publishing – content online, this shift has already taken hold.  (Pew Research) 

Moreover, distrust of product companies will only accelerate this trend, as consumers increasingly turn to their peers for seemingly unbiased opinions and information. 

And, it is in this environment that most marketers focus on the loss of control over brand messaging and identify, rather than the opportunity.  

How then do marketers – and particularly green marketers – take advantage of this new Web 2.0 order?   

We need to first recognize that the rules of engagement have changed; many traditional assumptions regarding marketing, media and branding no longer hold true.  Yet, as marketers, our response should not be to shy away from this change, but to encourage and embrace it through new marketing approaches. 

And, as it turns out, the green category is defined by specific consumer, product and brand characteristics that can take full advantage of Web 2.0 capabilities.

First, green is an emerging product category.   Consumers are not very familiar with the products available today.  Few standards exist.  And, new products and technology solutions are coming to market each day. 

As such, marketers have the opportunity to leverage Web 2.0 capabilities to help consumers to navigate the category, facilitate consumer education and drive product development through collaborative environments and communities 

Second, many consumers are not fully committed to being green yet.  Attitudes are evolving.  Purchase behavior is inconsistent.  And, perceptions about corporate brands are still be formed. 

Marketers have the opportunity to influence this evolution through transparent participation in the online dialogue, encouragement of WOM marketing and facilitation of consumer engagement online.  

As with consumers, the greening of a company and a brand should be considered a journey.  One challenge for green marketers then is to keep the journey of your own brand one step ahead that of your customers. 

Third, it is important to remember that for some, green describes not only a product attribute but a social cause.  All marketers should take advantage of this by activating those consumers most passionate about the category.   

The challenge for marketers then is to act in a way that is perceived as genuine and not simply “greenwashing”.  

And, it is in this context and this environment that we welcome our panelists and begin our discussion.  

(Special thanks to Carl Fremont, EVP and Global Head of Media at Digitas for his contributions)

Testing Green Promotional Benefits to Drive Acquisition

Promotional benefits are a popular marketing tactic used across almost every industry to acquire new customers.   Marketers like offering such benefits as they can greatly increase acquisition rates or drive repeat purchases over time.  

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the use of promotional benefits has been extended to the green space.  Using “green” promotional benefits – that is, incentives that have environmental benefit – to drive acquisition, however, is unchartered territory as there are few benchmarks to validate their use or their effectiveness.

Nonetheless, such green benefits are increasingly being offered across a variety of product categories.  Here are just a few examples:

Autos: Volkswagen of America announced its “Carbon Neutral Project”, a campaign that offers to offset the carbon emissions for one year.  This promotional benefit is being offered on a trial basis and expires on January 2, 2008.

Banking: Several banks offer discounts on auto and home-equity loans that pay for environmentally-friendly goods. One of the most generous is the Carolina Postal Credit Union, which serves US Postal Employees and Federal Employees in North Carolina, which offers a 1% discount on auto loans when purchasing a hybrid.

Credit cards: Today, it is common for credit card companies to offer one-time bonus miles for signing up for an airline affinity card.  The latest entrant into the green card market, Metabank, puts a different spin on this promotional benefit: bonus carbon credits.  Every new applicant receives the equivalent of 10,000 lbs of CO2 offsets – the average annual CO2 emission of a car in the US – when they sign up for their green card.

Real Estate: NY-based Moss Real Estate Group offers both buyers and sellers in a completed transaction offsets for their carbon emissions for one year.

Telecommunications:  San Francisco-based wireless carrier Working Assets announced that it offers new subscriber a “carbon neutral phone” (a $55 value) to offset average CO2 emissions caused by phone use over the next year.

Green or not, promotional benefits come with clear economic trade-offs.  First, benefits can be very expensive, as not only do they reduce net revenue and increase costs, but they are likely extended to many prospects that would have converted anyway.

Second, promotional benefits tend to attract incremental customers with “lower repurchase rates and smaller lifetime values” according to Michael Lewis, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Florida. 

In fact, his study of consumer-level data from the newspaper and online grocery industries offers sobering results: “a 35% acquisition discount results in customers with about one-half the long-term value of non-promotionally acquired customers.”  (“Customer Acquisition Promotions and Customer Asset Value”, Journal of Marketing Research, May 2006).  As such, while benefits attract new customers, they may not necessarily generate economic value in doing so.

As the impact of green promotional benefits remains uncertain at this time, Marketing Green recommends a cautious approach for marketers: test the efficiency and effectiveness of this type of program with a small, targeted audience before scaling more broadly.   

Such in-market tests should seek to answer five key questions that can impact program design, target segments and types of offers:

  • What value do consumers place on green benefits, either perceived or actual?  How does this value differ by target segment and product category?
  • Who should be the recipient of this benefit – the individual consumer or society (eg, via a donation to a non-profit organization, for example)? 
  • Do green benefits expand the market or simply reward those that would already purchase a product or service?
  • Do green benefits impact average customer lifetime value positively or negatively over time?
  • Do green benefits generate brand value by positioning the company as more socially responsible?

Moreover, Marketing Green recommends that marketers should assess whether consumers understand these green promotional benefits (eg, what do carbon credits mean?) as well as their equivalent economic value (eg, how much is it worth?).  Without broad acceptance of these promotional benefits by consumers, marketers may find that they also have to invest in consumer education if they want to target anyone today but the most committed green consumers.