A successful green branding effort can have big payoffs, according to marketing pros. “Branding green opens up a huge segment of the market, builds consumer, and reduces price resistance,” says Shel Horowitz, co-author of Guerilla Marketing Goes Green. He adds that the process of branding a green product is no different than that for branding any product. “It’s common sense marketing. It’s a coordinated campaign across many channels: traditional media, social media, advertising, your website, and a number of other things.”
But while the process may be familiar to any marketer, creating the right content can pose challenges. The biggest challenge is that buyers are less likely than ever to believe companies’ brand messages. While that skepticism is common among all buyers, it’s especially strong among the environmentally aware. “Green buyers see themselves as less susceptible to traditional marketing and advertising,” says Horowitz.
Perhaps that’s because so much of it seems designed to mislead. At least that was the conclusion of the fourth annual Sins of Greenwashing Report published in 2010 by TerraChoice, an Ottawa-based green marketing firm that’s owned by Underwriters’ Laboratory. The report, which was based on an examination of 5296 green-branded products – including 729 building and construction products – found that more than 95% of them made at least one false or misleading green claim.
Industry observers say that the prevalence of misinformation has hurt the green products industry. “People no longer assume honesty,” says Honey Rand, president of Environmental PR Group in Orlando. “If you wrap a product in a green claim it better be true. If it’s not it will eventually come back to bite you.”
That bite may come from the government. Cynthia Faur, a partner in the Environmental Practice group of Milwaukee, Wis. law firm Quarles & Brady, says the FTC has been cracking down on false green claims and slapping fines on offending companies. “For instance if you claim to have 90% recycled materials you better be able to substantiate that claim,” she says. “If you make [R-value] claims about windows, be clear what those claims apply to, whether just the glass or the glass and the frame.”
Green Buyer Psychology
Companies that are less than honest in their marketing also risk alienating customers. According to a recent report from Cone, a Boston-based branding firm, 71% of buyers say they will stop buying a specific product if it has a record of misleading claims, and 37% will stop buying all of the offending company’s products.
Manufacturers say that growing public cynicism is one of their biggest hurdles. “The more companies put out green messages, the less effective those messages become,” says Greg Colando, president of FLOR, a Chicago-based maker of residential modular carpet.
How a company responds to this depends partly on its philosophy and partly on what it’s selling. Colando says that while FLOR has a strong commitment to recycling–the recycled content of its products ranges from 40% to 80%, and the company will take it back used carpet for recycling at no charge–it’s not a big part of their branding strategy. Instead, recycled content is an ante that gets green buyers in the door. Sales are typically decided on more conventional attributes. “People ultimately make their buying decision on good design.”
That’s not always true, however. For products that directly reduce energy or water costs to the consumer, smart branding tends to emphasize those green attributes. Money talks. That’s why you’ll see the Energy Star label on GE Appliances’ home page and why Moen’s Water Sense award is the main feature of theirs. Tampa Florida-based WaterOptimizer’s webpage includes case studies on how its smart irrigation controller reduces water use while keeping the lawn green.
Forget Trust. Verify.
Regardless of whether the green message is behind the wheel or in the back seat, buyers are increasingly demanding that companies prove any claims they make. Most companies rely on third-party verifications and labels, especially important when marketing to pro customers such as builders and designers, whose own green brands rely on the products they install or specify. “We put a great deal of importance on certification,” says John Cantrell, a designer at global design firm HOK’s Atlanta, Ga. office. “If a product doesn’t have a label, we’re less and less open to using it, because there’s no accountability.”
Recent research has found that certified products have a much better track record than non-certified ones. A report by TerraChoice (http://sinsofgreenwashing.org) found that products certified by a legitimate certification program were more than 30% free of greenwashing. That still leaves a lot of misleading claims, but it’s far better than the 4.4% overall greenwashing-free rate the study found.
The question is how to gauge a label’s legitimacy.
“There are more than 600 environmental labels floating around,” says Scot Case, Director of Market Development for UL Environment. “I can go online and get one for $30. But what was the review process? Who conducted the review? What protocol did they use?” The good news, he says, is that the market is “busy whittling the number of labels down to those that have meaning.”
Labels relied on by the people interviewed for this article included familiar names like Energy Star, WaterSense, as well as EcoLogo, GreenGuard, and Eco Score Card. Case says that buyers can do due diligence on other certifications by making sure they are based on some recognized standard, like ISO 14024 or NSSF 140, and that the product’s green attributes have been verified by an independent lab such as UL.
While product certification is important, some companies extend branding to the entire company. For instance Certainteed recently published a Corporate Sustainability Report that documents its environmental progress, including a substantial reduction in energy use by its facilities. “We believe it’s important to offer our customers a degree of transparency,” says Aman Desouza, Director of Innovation & Product Sustainability.
Atlanta, Ga. based commercial carpet manufacturer Interface, Inc. (FLOR’s parent company), also claims to value such transparency. It relies on internally generated Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs: brief, third party verified reports that document the environmental impacts of its products and its manufacturing process. “The transparency provided by an EPD is important to sophisticated customers such as architects and designers on the commercial side,” says Erin Meezan, the company’s VP of Sustainability. “It has really helped us market our green products.”
Meezan says that the secret to doing this successfully is to stick to the facts. “The EPD is like a nutrition label for food. We do a lifecycle assessment [of a product’s environmental impact], have it third-party verified, then make it available to the customer.” The EPD is only credible if it’s free of marketing spin.
That just-the-facts approach is the key to cracking the green market, according to the companies doing it successfully. Horowitz finds that green buyers want to be informed about environmental issues, and respond very well to information-based marketing. The vehicle for delivering that information will depend on the product and the company. A small company that sells sustainably certified wood, for example, might do will with an e-newsletter that provides green building tips and establishes the company’s commitment and expertise. A larger company might want to throw traditional advertising into the mix.
Regardless of the vehicle – whether it’s a web presence, a Facebook page, or a corporate report – the green message will be most effective if it’s backed up by a third party. That backup could include certifications as well as customer testimonials. “There is a certain buyer who wants certification,” says Rand. “Then there are a lot of people who believe other buyers before they believe an official source.”
Either way, it’s about assurance. “People want to be assured that they’re doing the right thing when they buy your product,” says Horowitz. “The best way to do this is to be honest and not make false claims. At the same time, don’t be afraid to take full marketing advantage of your legitimate green initiatives.”
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