Playing the Green Card


It’s far from a new concept, but green marketing is on the consumer radar like never before. Drew Turney looks at the people doing it well and asks how they do it.

As every marketer worth his or her salt knows, repetition eventually desensitises the human nervous system. But we still overuse words to the point where they threaten to become meaningless. We’ve seen it happen to the word ‘community’ in the Internet age; ‘contemporary’ (hijacked to describe groovy inner city apartments) and ‘partner’ (an attempt to elevate the perceived position of a mere client that nobody really buys anymore).

It seems however that Australian consumers can’t get enough of the word ‘green’. From carbon credits to sustainable production, green marketing is a must-have strategy you need to merely register with many consumers, let alone succeed.

And it’s taking off like never before, one of the fastest marketing revolutions of recent times. A few years of horrific drought and killer storms — to say nothing of an Oscar winning documentary starring a former US vice president — have been a combined slap in the face and call to action for humanity. Green marketing isn’t about trying to look more environmentally friendly than your competitor, it’s using your presence in the business world to make a difference and shouting it from the rooftops to encourage others to do the same.

Green marketing’s already had it’s own ‘old days’. The early 90s saw the rise of guilt marketing, putting a dolphin logo on a can of tuna to show no driftnets were involved, or a rainbow on your washing powder because it wouldn’t poison waterways downstream.

Now, green marketing must encompass principles that run a lot deeper than the public face of your service or product, and for that reason it’s a far cry from the old bandwagon-hopping.

“I’d rather describe it as ‘authentic marketing’ because I think ‘green marketing’ sounds as though there’s some sort of spin to it,” says Sophie Bartho, director of Brandswell, a marketing agency founded — in the words of the company positioning statement — to effect positive change through design. “You only ‘get on board’ if you have a credible and real story to tell.”

Assuming you’re authentic, what exactly is green marketing? Having an environmentally friendly product to sell is only the beginning, and in many cases need not even be your starting point.

“{The] sale of products and services which appeal to a green consumer” suggests Anna Bowden, marketing and communications manager of Planet Ark Environmental Solutions, “that is, a values-based buyer who buys for environmental impact or other ethical considerations.”

Chris McLoghlin runs Melbourne CityBikes, a fleet of environmentally friendly people movers that can be branded with advertising messages, and he sees another side to green marketing’s potential. “[Green marketing] can have nothing to do with environmentally responsible practice,” he thinks, “but can benefit considerably by an association or perceived environmental benefit when purchasing or using that product or service — like buying fuel where the seller donates to an environmental cause.”

The revolution is being televised

You might be informed enough to know the statistics; since 1995 we’ve produced more greenhouse gases than in the entire course of human history previously. 2005 was the warmest year on record. CO2 has risen 30 percent since the industrial revolution.

Or maybe you’re just a casual consumer of current affairs, in which case you saw pictures of New Orleans looking not unlike the shores around the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004. Maybe you watched Al Gore storm the late 2005 box office and the abrupt turnarounds from politicians and industrialists in his wake.

So if you’re not thinking about marketing your green credentials, your customers are already asking themselves why. US brand-building agency Cone, Inc. revealed in a study that 86 percent of consumers would change brands to support a cause, and that’s from 2004, before climate was on everyone’s mind.

And in this age of urgency to change our behaviour, green credentials are a precise science. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not one of those toothless voluntary charters but a set of solid criteria against which businesses can report on their social and environmental impact. Under bodies such as the International Standards organisation, some countries are writing CSR principles into corporate law.

“All of this is actually being measured so an informed consumer or investor can ask questions that can confirm or destroy their credibility,” says Brandswell’s Bartho. “If you’re not getting answers you know it’s just spin.”

The means justifies the end

In the 1960s Harvard professor Theodore Levitt coined the term ‘marketing myopia’ in a landmark Harvard Business Review article. The myopia, he believed, came from focusing on products and not consumer needs, the result of which was a lot of products with amazing features nobody bought.

A report by US market researcher Roper’s Green Gauge found 80% of consumers don’t believe green products work as well — perhaps a holdover from the days when washing powder with pictures of whales and rainforests made you feel better but didn’t wash your clothes as well. That was green marketing myopia in action — create an inferior product and watch your consumers stay away in droves despite green appeal.

To succeed in green marketing, you can’t forget the goals of marketing in general — your product has to perform. Do this right and you could motivate consumers to switch brands, even pay a premium for your green alternative.

Sound good from a marketing perspective? Sure, but from an environmental perspective we still need behavioural change. And where marketing can be as simple as crowing about your green product or message, to Katie Patrick it can mean educating the consumer about the short-term sacrifices needed. “It’s got more to do with the environmental will of the buyer,” says Patrick, executive director of the Green Pages directory, the industry’s green products and services guide. “If it’s detergent and it works a little less effectively it just means I have to scrub a bit harder. It wouldn’t bother me in the slightest because I know the product I’m using is sustainable.”

Of course, in many market sectors environmentally friendly no longer means lower quality. Choosing the green option doesn’t have to be done out of a sense of begrudged guilt while everyone you know enjoys high performance from their unsustainable buying choices. “I don’t think the issue is sacrificing quality,” says Green Pages’ Patrick. “The Toyota Prius is the most energy efficient car on the market and it’s a great quality car. If you talk to the marketing managers of Toyota they’ll tell you how sales of the Prius blew them out of the water.”

The latest fashion

There’s another aspect to the green marketing scene — could it just be a trend running its course? It seems unthinkable at this stage with climate change filling column centimetres and the airwaves, but could green really be another viral trend to be digested and abandoned when there’s no money or X factor in it anymore? “We certainly don’t sell the green aspect as our main thing,” says Flexicar CEO Monique Conheady. It’s part of our overall message.”

Flexicar, which operates a fleet of cars in the Melbourne and Sydney CBD for members on a when-needed basis, is a green business insofar as its similarity to carpooling — a smaller number of cars on the road for a given group of people. But to Conheady, they have a more effective message for their customers than going green. “In certain approaches we’ll push some aspects stronger than others,” she says. “We did one on public transport that was more about the cost saving and convenience aspects, and I’m pleased our product is positioned that way because I think the green marketing thing is possibly a trend. There might be challenges for business models that are only hanging themselves on a green value proposition.”

Not that Flexicar thinks concern for the environment will die out, but puffing your chest up about how great you are at it won’t mean as much when thinking green is second nature to us all. “Certain things will become more ‘inbuilt’ into the way people live and work,” Conheady thinks, “At the moment there’s a real opportunity to capitalise on those changes but eventually they’ll become part and parcel of our lives.”

Flexicar is a good example of a green product without a green face (‘I can’t stand green,’ Conheady says, ‘The space has become overwhelmed with green as a branding colour’). With a website and branding that avoids green, the service is thriving because of its convenience. “A purely green campaign wouldn’t get the results we want because people make purchasing decisions for different reasons,” she adds. “It would limit our capacity to reach people who’ll take us up for the convenience.”

When it’s not easy being green

Of course, if you produce T-shirts and decide to use fibres that are grown sustainably or run a paper mill that switches to recycled pulp instead of woodchip stock, the power of green marketing is there for the taking. What if your product or service just can’t be produced or delivered in an environmentally friendlier way?

The answer is to think outside the box. If one staff member asks for a recycling bin under their desk or leaves the washing up until the next day when there are more dishes to save water you’re on the road to a sustainable business. John Fairfax publishing produces millions of newspapers every week, a product traditionally disposed of within 24 hours. That’s a lot of forests, but it hasn’t stopped Fairfax committing to reducing their carbon footprint.

And Westpac has been winning accolades for being the greenest bank in Australia — despite selling something as intangible as finance. Those environmental kudos getting the attention of potential customers is the essence of green marketing. “They’re not actually green products but [Westpac is] doing a lot of green things to differentiate them from their competitors,” says Green Pages’ Patrick. “More customers will come to them because of their green image, so it’s not necessarily a green product, it’s brand management.”

Even companies you’d think have no place in the green marketing canon are finding ways to make a difference. Arid Zone is a Melbourne-based producer of promotional products, an industry most would equate with high waste and environmentally unfriendly production processes. But there are changes to be made if you know where to look, explains managing director Clive McCorkell. “One of the things we realised when we went down this green path was to look within,” he says. “We’re currently going through a green audit and then we’ll know if we need to change our behaviour and then we’ll be in a position to understand products that will assist that.”

Citybikes is a good example of similar reputation-based marketing that can work no matter whether you have a green product to sell. “Obviously our product is geared toward facilitating green practice,” says director McLoghlin, “so it works extremely well with products and organisations that share these aspects. But more importantly we can provide a certain level of validation for products that may not be inherently green in their design or use. By using a medium that is responsible, we can offer significant advantages for marketers above and beyond other media.”

The failure of greenwash

Perhaps the strongest message to remember about successful green marketing is to get your own house in order first. Green marketing isn’t just about making yourself sound good, it’s about undoing the damage we’ve all wrought on the earth as commercial entities and individuals. Most people interviewed for this article reported having gone right through their own operations first, making as many changes as they could so they could be green before starting to talk green.

As a result, an industry’s sprung up to advise and assist in the greening of your enterprise. One part of it is Blue Square Design, a traditional print and web design consultancy that’s embraced environmentally friendly principles and wants to share them with clients.

“Making the commitment for the company to change is the first decision,” says director Trudi Selleck, “and for us, that’s looking at your processes and researching ways of making improvements. ‘Green marketing’ is not just the latest slogan, it should be the mindset of the company. We encourage all of our employees and clients to look at how they can reduce their footprint on the planet.”

So if you have a green story to tell, your customers are ready for it. In fact — they’re demanding it. Selleck quotes from a report that sums up the potential for green marketing whatever your industry;

‘92% of Australians favour measures to combat global warming, making it the country with the largest majority of its population believing immediate action should be taken to reverse climate change’.