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The New Rules of Green Marketing

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Green products have been around since the 1970s, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve become ubiquitous. It’s not because consumers suddenly prize sustainability above all. It’s because savvy green marketers are no longer trying to “sell the earth”—instead they’re promoting the value their products provide: better health, superior performance, good taste, cost-effectiveness, or simply convenience. This central emphasis on primary benefits—the new rules—is critical to winning over the mainstream consumer.

The New Rules of Green Marketing helps readers understand why value-based sustainability marketing has become a critical organizational capacity and how they themselves can adopt this approach. Drawing on the latest data from leading researchers and reflecting on learnings from her corporate clients and other pioneers—including GE, Nike, Method, Starbucks, Timberland, HP, NatureWorks, Procter & Gamble, Stonyfield Farm, and Wal-Mart—Ottman provides practical strategies, tools, and inspiration for building every aspect of a credible value-based green marketing strategy. She covers using a proactive approach to sustainability to spur innovation, developing products that are green throughout their life cycle, communicating credibly to avoid accusations of “greenwashing,” teaming up with stakeholders to maximize outreach to consumers, taking advantage of social media, and much more.

This book takes the best of Ottman’s previous groundbreaking work it into the 21st century. Her new rules relegate traditional “green guilt” approaches to the recycling bin of history, break green products out of their niche and, ultimately do a far better job of advancing the triple bottom line of people, profits, and planet.

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1 Green is now mainstream

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Back in the 1960s, trying to lead an environmentally conscious lifestyle, and especially integrating green into one’s shopping, was a very fringe phenomenon. But it’s now decidedly mainstream – and changing the rules of the marketing game in a very big way. Set in motion by Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring (1962), the clichéd forerunners of today’s green consumers lived off the nation’s electric grid, installed solar-powered hot-water heaters on their roofs, crunched granola they baked themselves, and could be spotted wearing hemp clothing, Birkenstocks, and driving a Volkswagen bus. Whatever greener products were available – mostly from fringe businesses, and sometimes manufactured in basements and garages – gathered dust on the bottom shelves of health food stores for good reason: they didn’t work, they were pricey, and they sported brand names no one had ever heard of. Not surprisingly, there was little demand for them. The natural laundry powders that were introduced in response to the phosphate scare of 1970 left clothes looking dingy, first-generation compact fluorescent light bulbs sputtered and cast a green haze, and multigrain cereals tasted like cardboard. If you were motivated to recycle, you lugged your bottles and daily newspapers to a drop-off spot inconveniently located on the far side of town. Green media was limited to treasured copies of National Geographic, PBS specials of Jacques Cousteau’s underwater adventures, and the idealist and liberal Mother Jones, Utne Reader, and New Age magazines.

 

2 We are all green consumers

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3 The new green marketing paradigm

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Conventional marketing is out. Green marketing and what is increasingly being called “sustainable branding” is in. According to the new rules of green marketing, effectively addressing the needs of consumers with a heightened environmental and social consciousness cannot be achieved with the same assumptions and formulae that guided consumer marketing since the postwar era. Times have changed. A new paradigm has emerged requiring new strategies with a holistic point of view and eco-innovative product and service offering.

Historically, marketers developed products that met consumers’ needs at affordable prices and then communicated the benefits of their brands in a memorable way. Paid media campaigns characterized by ads with catchy slogans were de rigueur. Green or “sustainable” marketing and branding is more complex. It addresses consumers’ new heightened expectations for businesses to operate and requires two strategies:

1. Develop products that balance consumers’ needs for quality, performance, affordability, and convenience with the lowest impact possible on the environment, and with due concern for social considerations, e.g., labor, community.

 

4 Designing greener products: A life-cycle approach

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It used to be that consumers simply expected the products they bought to work well, sport a familiar brand name, be sold in a nearby store, and be affordably priced. The rules have changed. Today, that once seemingly short checklist includes minimizing the environmental impacts of those products at every phase of their life-cycle, starting with the impacts associated with mining, growing, or otherwise processing the raw materials right through to the impacts linked to a product’s eventual disposal. And now, throw in for good measure a number of social considerations such as fair working conditions and whether or not laborers receive a living wage (even perhaps in some equitable proportion to the salaries of the highest-paid managers), use of child labor, whether prices paid to producers are deemed fair (can coffee growers afford to send their children to school?), and whether the manufacturer is a good member of the community. This presents to businesses looking to develop highly marketable and legitimately sustainable brands the need to juggle traditional product considerations with an extremely varied and highly complex list of issues involving the entire supply chain.

 

5 Innovate for sustainability

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Almost daily, new scientific data become available, suggesting that humans will need to tread significantly more lightly on the planet to meet our future needs sustainably. In short, all signs point toward present modes of production and consumption being unsustainable. This issue is especially critical for U.S. consumers whose lifestyles are the least sustainable on the planet and, to boot, are emulated or aspired to by billions of other consumers in emerging economies and developing nations. According to the U.S. EPA, in 2006 American households threw away more than 251 million tons of trash. The bulk of this waste ended up in landfills, consuming vast quantities of energy to transport and potentially adding toxic leachate to underground water supplies, not to mention using millions of pounds of raw materials that will take untold quantities of new resources and energy to replace. Some experts go so far as to estimate that, to achieve significant reductions in our energy and natural resource use over the next several decades, we will need to radically alter our entire means of production and consumption by a factor of four. One way to address this critical problem is through innovation.

 

6 Communicating sustainability with impact

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Hertz promised to get you out of airports faster. Tide guaranteed to get clothes whiter than white. Keds sneakers assured kids that they would run faster and jump higher. But with environmentalism now a core societal value, consumers want to see green themes in marketing messages in addition to traditional promises associated with a better life. Indeed, communicating environmental and social initiatives with authenticity and impact can help establish one’s brand in the vanguard of this important trend. Indeed, such messaging can even ward off legislative threats and potentially protect one’s corporate reputation when things go wrong. Also, with stakeholders of all types – employees, investors, and consumers among them – wanting to know about the sustainability of products at every phase of their life-cycles, communicating the environmental and social advantages of one’s brands is now critical to running a well-managed business.

Although there are many opportunities associated with communicating one’s sustainability initiatives, challenges abound – and not communicating one’s environmentally and socially oriented product and corporate initiatives may be riskier still. Marketers who don’t tout the sustainability achievements of their brands may find that consumers and other stakeholders assume their products and processes are not ecologically sound; this is a sure way to be replaced on the shelf by a competitor with recognized green credentials! Fail to get on the radar screens of the sustainability-aware and lose opportunities to increase market share among the growing number of influential and affluent LOHAS consumers. Address the new rules of green marketing and expect to enjoy such rewards as enhanced brand equity and a stronger emotional bond with stakeholders.

 

7 Establishing credibility and avoiding greenwash

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In 1990 Sam Walton promised that Wal-Mart would reward the Procter & Gambles and Unilevers of the world with special shelf talkers (the signs that appeal alongside a given product), if they could prove that their products had greener features. Respond they did, and soon Wal-Mart’s shelves were emblazoned with all sorts of messages about the greener features of various products including dubious ones such as household paper towels where the cardboard core was made of recycled content but not the paper towels. Not surprisingly, environmental activists called the effort a sham, on two counts: the features had been there all along, so no real progress was being made, and the presence of one green feature didn’t necessary mean a product was green overall. This example and others like it represented the very first, likely unintentional, case of greenwashing, and it set the stage for new standards of eco-communications firmly rooted in genuine progress and transparency.

With green awareness now squarely mainstream, many companies cater to newly eco-aware consumers by launching products and services that may, intentionally or not, be less than legitimately “green.” The popular term for such activity is “greenwashing.” Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to criticize hotels that encouraged guests to reuse towels for environmental reasons but made little or no effort to recycle waste, accusations of greenwashing can emanate from many sources including regulators, environmentalists, the media, consumers, competitors, and the scientific community, and it can be serious, long-lasting, and hugely detrimental to a brand’s reputation. With an eye toward making headlines and creating an example for everyone else to heed, advocates tend to target the most trusted and well-known companies. BP, for one, received heaps of criticism on launching its $200 million Beyond Petroleum campaign touting its commitment to renewable energy which, in fact, represented less than 1% of total global sales; and that criticism was only compounded by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 18 times the size of the epic Exxon oil spill in Prince William Sound in spring 1989.

 

8 Partnering for success

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Historically, the only groups with a direct interest in a company’s products or operations were investors, employees, customers and end consumers, suppliers, and the press. However, with increased awareness of industry’s impact on our water, land, and air, new eyes from practically every corner of society now scrutinize a firm’s environmental and social impact, writing new rules for the ways business is conducted and brands are marketed. Today, a host of new corporate environmental and social stakeholders are now on the list, including the general public, citizen journalists and bloggers, educators, environmental and social activists, government bodies, community groups, church leaders and other religious groups, and even children and future generations who will feel the effects of today’s corporate activities in decades to come (see Fig. 8.1).

With potential influence on such diverse activities as how businesses procure raw materials, design their products, and produce and promote them, some groups monitor corporate polluters: boycotting, conducting negative media campaigns, and lobbying for stiff new laws are tools in their arsenal. Other groups engage companies one-on-one in positive efforts, and there is much to gain from collaborating with them. Representing a myriad of capabilities and resources that can help solve complex environmental and social problems, diverse stakeholder groups can help improve understanding of how your company is perceived in the world at large. They can help identify issues to address and evaluate stakeholder satisfaction.

 

9 Two sustainability leaders that superbly address the new rules

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The new rules for addressing the demands of today’s sustainability-minded consumers not only represent a seismic shift in communication strategy but also now require a thorough, life-cycle approach to product development and the ability to forge constructive coalitions with a wide array of new corporate stakeholders. While most businesses are still learning the new rules and trying to adapt accordingly, some business are leading the way, pioneering new strategies, and enjoying the myriad benefits. While many companies, large and small, fit into this category, two have been chosen to be profiled in depth in this chapter: Starbucks and Timberland.

Of course, no company can be considered 100% sustainable – and these companies have their eco-shortcomings, too – but I believe that the progress made by these two firms can represent a model for others who follow in their steps and, I hope, a platform from which to build on even these leaders’ efforts. Consumer loyalty to these companies and their offerings proves that new sustainable branding strategies can form the basis of an enduring business and provide leverage in the face of formidable competition. They superbly demonstrate how new strategies of green marketing can create jobs, build brand loyalty, and return hefty profits, all the while contributing to a more sustainable society.

 

10 Conclusion

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The maturing of greening as a consumer phenomenon, and its decided shift from the fringe into the mainstream, changes the rules of green marketing. A new green marketing paradigm now exists. It is characterized by a keen sensitivity for the total person who constitutes one’s consumer and his or her new needs for brands that balance age-old benefits of performance, affordability, and convenience with minimal environmental and social impacts, and engage their consumers in meaningful dialogue. Manufacturers, retailers, and marketers looking to sustain their businesses long into the future must heed these new rules with communications that empower their consumers to act on pressing issues backed up by a proactive and demonstrated corporate commitment to conducting business in a sustainable way.

Meeting today’s consumer needs won’t be easy. Many challenges are associated with sustainable branding and green marketing – and many notable attempts, inadvertent or deliberate, of “greenwashing” abound.

 

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