Green Marketing, From the Other Side

Last week I read a Fast Company article that discussed the changes in how brands market their sustainability efforts. In the article, Marc Stoiber contends that touting sustainable efforts can result in mixed reactions from consumers, saying that when you mention green “50% of Americans run away, while the other 50% cringe and wonder how much more it will cost.”

Companies, predictably, are eagerly trying to figure out how to balance the death sentence of greenwashing against the sunny pastures of positive brand awareness that accompanies a well-executed sustainability strategy. Nike seems to have figured out a way to get the message across by building sustainability into their brands, as opposed to using it as a primary selling feature.

What’s the catalyst? Stoiber says brands used to be “displayed in metaphoric show windows,” but now, brands “are like fishbowls:”

Established brands (and their agencies) have had a difficult time with the transition. There’s still a yearning for control, for proper presentation, for giving consumers only the good news. Complete transparency is a frightening thing. But transparency and honesty is long overdue. If brands have been harming the planet or people, it’s time to come clean. Unsettling changes may be needed to make brands more virtuous. Is that a bad thing?

Stoiber’s commentary was thought-provoking for me, as a consumer who is the recipient of these marketing strategies. It made me come up with the following four questions that I think we should all be considering as shoppers:

1. Do you think it’s better for brands to shout their sustainability from mountain tops, or just let products show for themselves?

2. If brands don’t “shout from mountaintops,” how will we know what good they’ve started to build into their operations?

3. What about smaller brands that don’t have money to shout from mountaintops?

4. What role do corporate sustainability reports play in all of this? Have you ever read one of these reports (or a summary of one)?

Your thoughts?

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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3 Responses to Green Marketing, From the Other Side

  1. Sheila, great summary and questions – thanks!

    Your 1st Q: Do you think it’s better for brands to shout their sustainability from mountain tops, or just let products show for themselves?

    My thoughts: First, brands engaged in substantive sustainability efforts should communicate about those efforts, at the very least to help educate consumers about relevant issues. Second, such communications should be integrated and made a part of the brand so that they are authentic — that way, if a brand is known for shouting from mountain tops, shouting sustainability from those mountain tops will fit; if more reserved, likewise. Starbucks, Timberland and Method are prime examples of brands doing this particularly well. Third, brands increasingly need to find issues relevant to their industry and products where they can take a leadership position — this will be necessary to help them continue to use sustainability as a differentiator. Starbucks did this, for example, with its crowd sourcing “Betacup” campaign to help it find the best solution to those millions of unsustainable paper cups its coffee is served in every day.

    Your 2nd Q: If brands don’t “shout from mountaintops,” how will we know what good they’ve started to build into their operations?

    My thoughts: we won’t know, unless we’re among those small few who go digging. However, each brand must determine how sustainability can best be integrated (see first part of my response to question above). I do think it will be beneficial to talk about it where possible for the vast majority of brands, as long as it’s in a credible and, yes, transparent way.

    Your 3rd Q: What about smaller brands that don’t have money to shout from mountaintops?

    See the Gort Cloud by Richard Seireeni, which shows how smaller brands have been doing this even before social media. I’ve personally helped dozens of such brands with digital and other marketing tactics utilizing “NGOs, trendspotters, advocacy groups, social networks, business alliances, certifying organizations, and other members of the green community,” so I know Rich’s advice is sound.

    Your 4th Q: What role do corporate sustainability reports play in all of this? Have you ever read one of these reports (or a summary of one)?

    With sustainability / CSR reports becoming ever more common, they have a critical role in marketing communications beyond being a check box tactic. Smart companies are using their CSR reports as the strategic planning tools they are, and to have available for stakeholders that request them; but, critically, they’re breaking down the typically vast amounts of data and stories in their reports in digestible bits targeted to each stakeholder group. For the 90-some percent of consumers, employees, and investors who will never read a CSR report, this is very important. In most of these cases, this is done digitally/interactively.

  2. Lauren says:

    A very thought-provoking post! Because consumers’ awareness of green living strategies is still growing, brands do need to heavily promote their sustainable efforts. They face the dual challenge of educating consumers as well as ensuring the message sticks.

  3. I don’t think they run away – we’ve had so much success with our sustainable ‘look’ and marketing techniques. Young people today are drawn to an eco-friendly company message and marketing technique. Anything else makes THEM run away and they are the future of business.

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