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 BPs 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
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 thisissuewhich is about a long-term global
goalin terms of its immediate personal benefits.
Rebecca Eaton, manager of the World Wildlife Funds 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 peoples minds, its
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,
Its about pollution in general. Try to get specific
about global warming and you have lost themtheir 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 its 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 dont 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 dont need to use technical phrases such as offset
and unavoidable emissions to explain why its 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 Toyotas 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, BPs
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 peoples 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 Australias Global Choice brochures describes GHGs
as a blanket that traps heat in the Earths 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 Districts 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
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
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. Thats an easy thing to get. Its 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
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 cant 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 Australias 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. Its a classic triple bottom line
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 RobertRabinowitz@hotmail.com