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How To Avoid A Green Marketing Backlash

Americans misunderstand key phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising, giving products a greater environmental halo than they deserve and creating a growing risk of backlash, according to a new survey.

According to the 2008 Green Gap Survey, conducted by Cone LLC and The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, almost four in 10 (39%) Americans are preferentially buying products they believe to be “environmentally friendly.” At the same time, almost half (48%) of the population erroneously believes a product marketed as “green” or “environmentally friendly” has a positive (i.e., beneficial) impact on the environment. Only 22 percent understand these terms more accurately describe products with less negative environmental impact than previous versions or competing products.

According to the survey, Americans do not realize this green gap exists:

  • 47 percent trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging
  • 45 percent believe companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment
  • 61 percent of Americans say they understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising

Despite not recognizing the existing green gap, more than half of Americans (59%) support a move by the government to ensure the accuracy of environmental messaging by regulating it.

In addition to government, Americans believe other entities can play an important oversight role to ensure accuracy in environmental messaging:

  • Certification by third-party organizations – 80%
  • Review and reporting by watchdog groups, news media, bloggers, etc. – 78%
  • Regulation by government – 76%
  • Self-policing by industry or business groups – 75%

Five Guidelines for Effective Environmental Marketing

Be precise. Make specific claims that provide quantitative impacts. 70 percent of Americans say quantifying the actual environmental impact of a product or service is influential in their purchasing decisions. In addition, the more precise an environmental claim, the more convincing Americans believe it to be. For example, 36 percent found the message “environmentally friendly” credible when used to describe a paper product, but 60 percent found the message “made with 80% post-consumer recycled paper” credible.

Be relevant. Demonstrate a clear connection between the product or service and the environment. 74 percent of Americans say providing a clear connection between the product/service and the environmental issue (i.e., a hybrid car and lower emissions) influences their purchasing decisions.

Be a resource. Provide additional information for consumers in a place where they want it. Americans say they are most likely to seek information online via a company’s Web site (54%), a third-party Web site (51%), a search engine (48%) or via product packaging (45%).

Be consistent. Don’t let marketing images send a signal that contradicts the carefully chosen words and facts you use. For example, showing an automobile parked in a virgin forest may be seen as insensitive, while a product growing out of a tree may be seen as exaggeration.

Be realistic. There are always more environmental improvements that can be made to a product or service, and they are but one piece of a much larger environmental journey for society. Communications that include some sense of context, as well as a “work in progress” tone, will be more credible and less subject to criticism.

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