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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2002 : Commentary


The Return of Green Marketing

Green marketing is set to make a new-and improved-comeback.

By Edwin R. Stafford

The Wall Street Journal declared recently that “green marketing” in practice is fading fast. After a decade of designing marketing pitches and products to appeal to consumers’ environmental sensibilities, companies are finding that eco-marketing is simply not effective. Shoppers are choosing convenience over ecological benefits, and waste from our throw-away lifestyles is streaming into landfills in record numbers. Indeed, New York City’s elimination of plastic and glass recycling to save money symbolizes how far environmentalism has fallen off the public agenda.

Has society come to perceive “environmentalism” as too much of a nuisance or luxury? Many environmentalists worry that it has. Rhetoric about our need to expand oil and gas drilling across the country and weaken clean air and water laws for energy and homeland security certainly confirms their fears.

Despite the grim outlook, environmentalism and green marketing are destined to return—if in slightly different, more subtle guises. As the nation debates how to ease our Mideast oil dependency and bolster domestic energy and homeland security, environmentalists’ long-standing advocacy for energy conservation is gaining added resonance. Despite Detroit’s resistance to raising car fuel efficiency standards, a recent J.D. Power & Associates study finds that 60 percent of American new-car buyers would seriously consider buying fuel efficient gas-electric hybrid cars, and they’re willing to pay $1,000 more for them—a premium that’s likely to rise with the next oil price shock. While growing demand for fuel economy is probably being driven more by consumers’ wallets rather than their patriotism, energy efficiency is a wise move for the nation. Energy security must begin with using less energy, far more efficiently to do the same tasks. Here’s where green marketing will make its comeback. As the environmental community re-energizes its anti-fossil fuel campaign by promoting energy conservation’s “triple bottom line” cost savings, greater energy security and a healthier environment, then consumer demand for fuel and energy efficiency is likely to grow and impact many energy-intensive products from cars to appliances to buildings to high technology.

Rather than viewing the push for energy efficiency as a threat, savvy companies should seize the innovation opportunities. Energy efficiency is destined to become the “green” product attribute sought by consumers in the coming years, and they will be willing to pay for it when the benefits justify the price. To sell energy efficiency successfully, however, green marketers will need to re-think their traditional eco-marketing strategies.

Consumers have tended to resist environmental products, believing they don’t work as well as traditional “non-green” products. To address this issue, the Boston, MA-based Alliance for Environmental Innovation and household products-maker SC Johnson conducted a study a few years ago to explore ways to market green products to mainstream consumers. The study uncovered three important insights. First, to have broad appeal, green products must function as effectively as non-green products and avoid the quality/cost trade-off. Second, environmental features should not be touted as the primary selling points. Because mainstream consumers choose products primarily on how well they meet basic needs (e.g., for a clean floor or to move from point A to point B), rather than trying to change consumers’ priorities, marketers should offer environmental features as added selling points for already effective products.

Last, environmental product attributes should be positioned as “personally beneficial.” In the study, shoppers were more likely to act on environmental impacts that they could experience personally (e.g., safety, non-toxic, cost savings) as opposed to more traditional green messages (e.g., biodegradable, biodiversity safe, ozone friendly). The most preferred environmental product features included: safe to use around children; no strong fumes; no toxic ingredients; and no chemical residues. In short, green products typically offer inherent health and safety benefits, and savvy marketers can tout these benefits to encourage broader acceptance.

The bottom line is that to sell energy efficiency, marketers need to pitch the “right” personal benefits. For gas-electric hybrid cars, for example, fuel economy may appeal to most customers. However, the convenience of not having to fuel up so often may interest long commuters, while the sheer high-tech novelty may grab the attention of “techies.” Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that some early adopters purchased their hybrid cars because they want to show off their cars’ advanced wizardry among their peers. In short, energy efficiency’s potential cost savings, convenience and technology advances offer marketers many creative options for crafting persuasive, personally-beneficial green pitches to varied markets. As energy prices climb, however, money savings is likely to become a key decision point for product decisions, and certifications, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star, may be critical for bolstering the credibility of efficiency claims and signaling product quality.

Businesses typically have viewed environmental demands as a burden. The new wisdom, however, is that environmentalism can drive product innovation. When coupled with cost savings and other quality benefits sought by consumers, green products can sell effectively. As demand for energy efficiency strengthens, green marketing will make a comeback—new and improved.

Edwin R. Stafford, Ph.D., is a marketing professor at the College of Business, Utah State University in Logan, UT, who studies the diffusion of cleaner and smarter technology.

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