4 Tips to Keep Up with the Evolution of Green Marketing

By Michael Ellis of GreenBiz

Last month, Joel Makower, executive editor of the GreenBiz Group, wrote that green marketing is over. His conclusions, similar to those of a recent study by OgilvyEarth, ignited impassioned commentary among green consultants and marketers.

But it hasn’t gotten broader attention — which may be a good thing, since Joel’s argument is easy to misinterpret. Indeed, as Joel importantly points out, marketing green is thriving in many ways and evolving rapidly; just a narrow slice of the practice is fading away.

While Joel doesn’t directly define green marketing in the piece, his implicit definition is narrow. “Green marketing… is aimed at getting people to buy stuff that is better for the environment,” he writes. It focuses on a “more just and sustainable world;” any marketing that focuses on non-environmental aspects of a product (e.g., hybrid cars’ convenience) isn’t “green marketing.” Furthermore, Joel points out that “the business-to-business landscape is wholly different. A wide range of things companies buy… are being marketed effectively for their environmental attributes.”

In other words, then, consumer-facing advertising that primarily focuses on environmental benefits is over, but not that aimed at businesses or that which primarily focuses on tangible, personal benefits and environmental benefits second. So instead of holding a funeral for green marketing, celebrate its evolution!

There is a parallel here to environmental strategy consulting that GreenOrder, an LRN Advisory Group, focuses on (where I work and where Joel is a senior strategist). Unlike a few years ago, now fewer companies are saying “We need to go green” — but more and more are demanding ways to use “green” approaches (e.g., increasing energy efficiency, partnering with the eNGO community) to enhance their core business. 

 So is “green consulting” over, too? I wouldn’t say so. The field has just matured. GreenOrder and our peers don’t just carry a green hammer mistaking all manner of bumps as nails. Rather we wear emerald-colored glasses, applying the rigorous tools of strategy consulting to traditional business problems like accelerating innovation, improving profitability, and engaging employees.

Our partners (the corporations we advise) — and many other sophisticated companies — are increasingly making business decisions with significant environmental implications just because they make sense. Even more marketers should help consumers do the same. How? Here are four tips:

1) Ground all of your marketing in fundamentals.
As any student of the “4 P’s” of marketing theory knows, marketing is more than just Promotion (e.g. advertising); it also includes, for example, People involved in a sale, like a sales rep who can point out the convenience of a CFL. The “5 C’s” are critical too — e.g., How does green help us understand our Customers’ needs? How do our product’s green attributes reduce the its total Cost of ownership?

2) Be true to your company’s brand.
Too many companies have emphasized green even if it doesn’t fit with their brand. Part of the reason why Method is gaining on Clorox Greenworks is that many people associate Clorox with effective but strong chemicals.

3) Don’t shy away from promoting incremental improvements (but don’t lead with them).
My favorite potato chips (Kettle Brand TIAS!) are primarily marketed as flavorful and natural — and Kettle doesn’t shy away from mentioning that their chips are 62 percent organic. I don’t shun the chips because they’re 38 percent non-organic; I embrace them because they’re tasty and better for me than most alternatives. It’s also worth being explicit about a brand or company’s ultimate journey by linking these incremental improvements to loftier long-term goals with concrete metrics. This way your audience will have a better understanding both of where you are now and where you aspire to be.

4) Be specific and avoid using the words “sustainable” or “green”.
The FTC, in revising their guide to green marketing [PDF], found that only 25 percent of consumers associated environmental benefits with the word “sustainable.” The same applies to unqualified “green” claims. Pointing directly to specific, tangible benefits is the way to go.

Here’s to the next era of more effective green marketing!

Michael Ellis is an associate principal at GreenOrder, an LRN company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that helps companies achieve competitive advantage through environmental innovation.

Article originated at GreenBiz