“America’s eco-consciousness, it turns out, is fickle. As recession gripped the country, the consumer’s love affair with green products, from recycled toilet paper to organic foods to hybrid cars, faded like a bad infatuation. (The New York Times, April 21, 2011)
Hold on a second. The New York Times may be giving marketers of green brands a free pass but I’m not going to let them off the hook that easily for their brands’ often uninspiring performance. Yeah, green brands are facing fierce headwinds but there are several actions marketers of sustainable brands can take to goose their brands’ sales.
I’ve boiled down my suggestions into Ten Commandments of Green Marketing:
I. Thou shalt not assume that all people who want to buy green products are card carrying, latte sipping (or granola munching, etc.) liberals.
There are many people out there that live outside so-called politically progressive areas (e.g., Berkeley) that want to green their purchases if only it were easier. They are worried about the environment but say they are not aware of many green brands and are skeptical about green products’ ability to get the job done at a reasonable price. Make these folks aware of your brands and convince them they work at a price that doesn’t break the bank. Lower the barriers preventing these mainstream Americans from buying sustainable brands and they will buy green.
II. Thou shalt remember the marketing basics and keep them holy.
Just because a product is green does not mean that it’s exempt from having to jump through all the hoops conventional products have to. Like making people aware of their existence. Like convincing folks that they work. Like not costing an arm and a leg. In fact, because there is a healthy amount of skepticism about green products, I think marketers of green brands have to work even harder on marketing basics than marketers of conventional brands. It’s important to worry about protecting against greenwashing allegations and other eco-centric concerns but don’t neglect the basics!
III. Thou shalt not become so focused on marketing basics, however, that thou mentions your products’ sustainability bona fides as if they were an afterthought.
Although getting the marketing basics right is essential, that doesn’t mean that a product’s eco-friendliness is without value. What if your competitors also get the marketing basics right? And you’re in a market where brands are seen as interchangeable commodities despite marketers’ best efforts to differentiate? Break out of the rut by trumpeting your brand’s friendliness to planet and people.
IV. Thou shalt make sustainability personal, very personal.
No one wants to see polar bears drown but that storyline ain’t going to get you too far if you’re a green marketer. And what about statistics on the alarming rise in temperatures, atmospheric CO2 levels, or the percentage of the Arctic Sea that is ice-free every summer? YAWN! The only answer is to get personal.
Hit ‘em where they live: A growing body of evidence points to the dangers of many of the chemicals in our food, our window cleaners, and our carpets to name a few products. Look at rising asthma rates among children, for instance, and one has to wonder and worry.
Hit ‘em where they play: In the garden, shifting growing zones are making life confusing and costly for the green thumbs out there. And what about the fertilizer running off from our beautiful gardens and lawns? An explosion of oxygen gobbling algae can make it hard to catch a fish at your favorite fishing hole. What about invasions of tree killing pests in your favorite hiking area because the temperatures don’t get cold enough in the winter anymore to kill off many of the critters? You get the picture.
V. Thou shalt park the preachiness at the door.
While tsk, tsk righteousness about how the American lifestyle is dooming the planet may play on New York’s Upper West Side or in Boulder, it doesn’t work in most other precincts these days. We’re weary and worried about our immediate circumstances right now.
VI. Thou shalt make it easy for newbies to try green products.
The women we interviewed repeatedly asked, “what if I try a new product and don’t like it? Then I’m stuck with it and I’m out money.” Offer free trials. Give out samples. Deeply discount initially.
VII. Thou shalt directly confront negative stereotypes about green products.
Let’s face it. Some of the earliest examples of green products were real turnoffs to all but the most diehard of true believers. Sad looking lettuce in dingy stores that smelled funky. Think about your brand’s category. What are some of the stereotypes that persist about eco-friendly brands? Do people think they don’t work well? Demonstrate how your green brand gets the job done as well as conventional competitors. Are green brands in your category seen as fringe-y? Get favorable press in mainstream publications.
Bottom line: Don’t run from negative stereotypes. Run to them and clobber them!
VIII. Thou shalt not worry about climate change doubters.
You’re wasting your time if you fret about hostility to the scientific community’s near consensus on climate change. More Americans are apathetic than openly hostile. Job #1 is to focus on those Americans that are not apathetic (i.e., they’re worried) but that are infrequent purchasers of green brands. That’s where the opportunity is. And if you can also convince the many Americans that are apathetic to be worried, more power to you. But let talk radio and TV talk shows dish out the heated rhetoric on climate change and other environmental issues.
IX. Thou shalt learn from large pharmaceutical companies and reach out to doctors.
If we agree that the health benefits of using sustainable products should be touted more forcefully, why not also speak to the professionals on whom Americans rely for medical advice? Patients are looking to doctors and nurses for advice on what products are safe to have in the home but doctors and nurses never took Household Cleaners 101 in school. Sponsor talks about studies highlighting the dangers of conventional products at the conferences that medical professionals attend.
X. Thou shalt ceaselessly question the conventional wisdom about consumers and Green.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in studying consumers and Green, the simple explanations are often too simple:
–“The recession has put a damper on green purchasing.”
–“No one besides Dark Greens really cares about the environment enough to buy green.”
–“Liberals love green products and conservatives could care less about them.”
To paraphrase Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, stay thirsty for the truth about the complex and evolving relationship between consumers and green products.
Jeff Dubin is president of Green Meridian and author of Dear Green Marketer.