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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2003 : Marketing the Message

Marketing the Message
Greenhouse gases. Emission reductions. Carbon branding. These complicated concepts can quickly turn consumers off. So how do companies market climate change strategies in ways that people can understand?

by Robert Rabinowitz

Consumers can now make a personal contribution to the fight against climate change through the products and services they purchase. Rent a car from Avis in Europe and, for an additional payment of £1 ($1.60), you can purchase emission reduction credits that offset the greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted by your rental car while you drive it. In Australia, motorists have already purchased over 100,000 tons of emission reduction credits through BP’s Global Choice program, which offsets the GHG emissions associated with the production and use of BP Ultimate fuel. Here in the U.S., customers of over 300 utilities can now pay a premium to buy their energy from renewable sources that do not emit GHGs.

These companies, and others such as Toyota and Shaklee, are engaged in carbon branding, using the low or zero GHG emissions profile of their product to gain a competitive advantage over non-climate friendly products. Many companies engaged in carbon branding are grappling with how to market them effectively to a mass audience. Sue Welland, co-founder of Future Forests, a London, England-based firm that specializes in carbon branding, outlines three dimensions to the challenge of communicating climate change to consumers:

* Scale and Visibility: Climate change is a global issue that spans decades, while people often respond best to issues that are immediate, local or personal. Climate change is also not
tangible or visible like deforestation or oil spills.

* The Ability to Have a Positive Impact: Most other environmental causes have a positive aspect, such as the number of animals saved or the area of land protected. By contrast, the goal of climate change policy is merely to reduce, but not halt, the anticipated negative effects of climate change.

* Complexity: The language of climate change science and policy is highly technical and intimi- dating. Even the basic distinction between “climate change” and “global warming” is
confusing to most people. The Kyoto Protocol, the global agreement to combat climate change, is also forbiddingly complex.

Together, these factors can prevent people from taking personal action about climate change because they feel that there is nothing that any individual can do to make a difference. As Welland notes, “Companies need to turn something that is invisible and nebulous into something that is tangible, practical and positive. They need to communicate thisissue—which is about a long-term global goal—in terms of its immediate personal benefits.”

Rebecca Eaton, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Savers program, agrees. She believes that it is important for companies not to play “chicken little” or to feel the need to give too much prominence to the science of climate change. “The key question is: how can companies focus their communication on general values and themes that people can absorb and identify with?”

Marketing experts agree that several key values and themes can be the foundations for effective carbon branding. Consumers increasingly view fossil fuels as a necessary evil because they create pollution such as smog and cause other problems such as climate change. Consumers also understand that wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy offer clean alternatives to these fuels. Finally, people value trees and forests for their role in cleaning the air, absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

This does not mean that consumers are tuned in to the issue of climate change. According to Michael Love, national regulatory affairs manager for Toyota USA, “The broader general public has not really focused in on climate change per se. When we do surveys about what environmental issues are at the top of people’s minds, it’s usually stuff related to personal health, issues such as air pollution or water pollution in local lakes or streams. There is definitely more of an inward focus than a broad societal focus.”

Mark Kapner, energy services manager for the GreenChoice program at the publicly-owned utility Austin Energy, has learned from his many public engagements around Austin, TX, that for most people, “It’s about pollution in general. Try to get specific about global warming and you have lost them—their eyes glaze over. They just know that if there is a choice between wind power or burning fuels, they prefer wind.”

Marketing materials for green energy programs use language and images that build on consumers’ existing beliefs and attitudes. The most popular images are of trees, wind turbines, children and plenty of clear, blue sky. Kapner notes that “People really do respond to the visual impact of a wind turbine. Maybe it’s the elegance and the intrinsic beauty of the idea that there is energy in the wind and we can extract it without doing any harm. People understand that we can do this rather than burn coal. They don’t need to hear more than that. They understand the environmental consequences.”

Sue Welland explains the attraction of trees. “Generally, trees are a symbol of the natural world. They are very tangible and very positive. They have lots of other benefits in improving quality of life, as well as absorbing carbon. Photosynthesis is also something we all did at school so people understand how trees clean the atmosphere. We don’t need to use technical phrases such as ‘offset’ and ‘unavoidable emissions’ to explain why it’s good to plant trees.”

The Windsource green tariff program offered by Xcel Energy in Colorado features particularly creative visuals of a wind turbine growing in a tree nursery, including one image of a child planting a wind turbine in a garden, combining several of the most popular themes in a single image. The language used in promotional materials for green energy programs echoes these themes. The core idea is that these programs enable people to make a choice to purchase “green” or “clean” renewable energy that does not pollute. Although the need to reduce GHG emissions may well be the main reason for green energy programs, it is more effective to appeal to consumers through their focus on smog and health.

This explains why Toyota’s advertising for the Prius hybrid vehicle makes little reference to climate change. As Michael Love puts it, “If you talk about things that do not resonate with the customer, you confuse them,” which could cost a sale. “We focus on a couple of key messages and our choice is not necessarily determined by what is important from an environmental perspective, but by the short amount of time we have to reach the customer.”

The complexity of climate change science and the offsetting process is another potential source of confusion. “Talking in terms of tons of emissions reduced and Kyoto base-lines quickly leads you into a lot of gobbledygook,” says Dave Welch, BP’s director of global communications. BP recently ran its Beyond Petroleum campaign, which refers to climate change, in three U.S. cities: Chicago, IL; Washington, DC; and New York, NY. “We use language and phrases that keep the ideas simple, something that is a quick read on a billboard or 30 seconds on TV. We always talk in terms of analogies. If consumers want to get into detail they can go to the Web site where you can find all of the additional detail that explains and substantiates each of the campaign statements.”

Carol Johnson, president and CFO of the Sacramento, CA-based advertising agency JHME, agrees with that strategy. “You cannot explain everything in the five seconds you have to grab people’s attention. The best thing you can probably tell them is that if they are confused about climate change, they should check out your Web site where you can communicate to them in more detail.”

Even after companies have got consumers’ attention, they still need to identify metaphors that help consumers to understand the essential issues without getting caught up in superfluous details. One of BP Australia’s Global Choice brochures describes GHGs as a “blanket” that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Climate change is caused when people add too much of these gases to this blanket. The metaphor is both simple and accurate. It also emphasizes that human action is the key cause of climate change. This gives consumers a sense that they can actually make a difference to the problem by buying the carbon branded product.

Jim Burke, who manages communications for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s Greenergy program, compares the electricity grid to a bath full of water. Creating new faucets that supply clean water allows old, polluting faucets to be closed off. Burke believes that this metaphor helps people to understand how purchasing green electricity displaces electricity generated from polluting fossil fuels.

Several utilities explain the impact of their green energy programs with comparisons to the number of trees that would need to be planted or cars taken off the road to offset the equivalent amount of GHGs reduced through the programs. These simple comparisons convert a potentially confusing issue into something that consumers already understand.

A crucial element to any carbon branding program is to purchase the most appropriate emission reduction credits to offset the GHG emissions associated with the branded product or service. While it is possible to buy “undifferentiated” emission reduction credits on the open market for $4 to $6 per ton, the right offsets from a marketing perspective may be more expensive.

Jennifer DuBose, an independent consultant and former certification manager at the Oregon-based non-profit Climate Neutral Network, which promotes carbon branding, offers some general guidelines. “The most attractive offsets are those that have multiple benefits, that really tackle community problems and that fly 100 percent in the face of skeptics’ views that it is either business or the environment. Companies like to have a nice story to put in their annual report showing smiling children and explaining how the company helped a project in a low-income neighborhood.”

DuBose cites various types of offset that have proved popular. “Reforestation projects are the most easy if you want to explain the program to eight year olds. That’s an easy thing to get. It’s a lot more boring to talk about the relative fuel efficiency of diesel and bio-gas.” Solar energy has widespread recognition as a clean source of energy, but it is a relatively expensive way to generate emissions reductions. On the other hand, manure management is an important issue environmentally and can yield reasonably priced reductions, but may be impossible to incorporate into a marketing message.

“People like things they can understand,” DuBose says. “Fuel switching or changing the timing of traffic lights to improve the fuel efficiency of cars on the road. They are not very sexy. How can you market that?” Emission reductions from community or non-profit projects are also much more marketable than offsets from major corporations.

Jonathan Shopley, chief executive of Future Forests, notes that offsets should support a coherent communications strategy. “Offsets should make a connection between people and their impacts, so customers will understand that they are both part of the problem and doing something to combat it. People love the idea of connecting personally to something that will help others beyond simply reducing climate change. Projects need to be tangible, to meet the ‘Web-cam’ test so that people can see where their money has gone. This ruled out various projects that can’t be shown in a striking image.”

Of course, carbon branding is not without its critics. Environmentalists are very wary of any suggestion that we can fight climate change by filling up an SUV with “green” gas. Companies involved in carbon branding have paid careful attention to this criticism. BP Australia’s marketing material advocates taking public transport, walking or cycling as a way to protect the environment. The core message is to reduce emissions as far as possible and only then offset those emissions that result from unavoidable activities. Future Forests has a similar message. Both companies are keen to emphasize that buying carbon branded products is not the solution to global warming. It is a way for the individual to make a personal contribution to the fight against global warming without waiting for governments to take action.

Environmentalists have also criticized some of the projects that provide offsets, especially reforestation projects. They point out that only reducing GHG emissions from fossil fuel can solve climate change, not reforestation. The difficulty for companies engaged in carbon branding is to balance these concerns against marketing requirements, especially since trees are so attractive to consumers. As Jennifer DuBose points out, “There is a danger that if we get too rigorous, we will not be able to entice the consumer. I like rigor and detail, but if there is too much, you may lose 95 percent of the market. We need to strike a balance between rigor and not losing the message.”

One major concern that companies may have about carbon branding is reputation risk. Becoming a leader on any environmental issue carries the risk of closer scrutiny by environmentalists. The key in minimizing such risk, says Shopley, is consistency. Companies need to ensure the integrity of all elements of the carbon branding strategy, such as the measurement of GHG emissions and the selection and purchase of offsets. They should also monitor whether other parts of their activities might undermine the strategy.

If executed with care, carbon branding should be a central component of carbon management strategies for companies with retail operations. Emissions monitoring and reductions in themselves can deliver cost savings and reduce future liabilities for GHG emissions. Nevertheless, as Sue Hall, executive director of the Climate Neutral Network, puts it, “Companies can still deliver more bottom line value by tying product and corporate brand identity to the issue of global warming and to a range of social benefits that can be achieved through emissions offset projects. It’s a classic triple bottom line idea.”

Robert Rabinowitz is a writer and consultant who has worked with financial companies that are building the new global greenhouse gas emissions market. He is based in New York, NY, and can be reached at

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