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OgilvyEarth: Green Marketing Failing to Motivate Mainstream America

According to a study released this week by consultant group OgilvyEarth, green marketers are “missing the mark” when it comes to motivating the mainstream American consumer to act on sustainability issues.
The study, “Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal” provides insight on how to close the Green Gap that persists between what consumers say and what they actually do around sustainable living.
“Research shows that many of the environmental messages are not just failing to close the Green Gap, but are actually cementing it by making green behavior too difficult and costly from a practical, financial, and social standpoint,” explained Graceann Bennett, Director of Strategic Planning, Ogilvy & Mather. “Many of the world’s leading corporations are staking their futures on the bet that sustainability will become a major driver of mainstream consumer purchase behavior. Unless they can figure out how to close the gap, there will never be a business case for green,” added Freya Williams, Co-Founder and Director of Strategy at OgilvyEarth and co-author of the study.
The study found that 82% of Americans have good green intentions but only 16% are dedicated to fulfilling these intentions, putting 66% firmly in what we’re calling the “Middle Green.” Considering green behavior on a continuum, most of the dialogue and marketing to date has focused on Super Greens on the one hand and Green Rejecters on the other. There has been limited success in motivating the masses or the Middle Green.

Green Feels Niche Rather than Normal
Existing green marketing is either irrelevant or even alienating to most Americans, the study asserts. Half of Americans think the green and environmentally friendly products are marketed to “Crunchy Granola Hippies” or “Rich Elitist Snobs” rather than “Everyday Americans.”

High Costs of Green
The number-one barrier Americans claimed was holding them back from more sustainable behaviors was money. “One trip to the grocery store and you would see that green products can have as much as a 100% price premium. It’s as if we’re penalizing virtuous behaviors with a defacto sustainability tax,” says Bennett. But price was far from the only thing preventing consumer behavior change. The Super Green minority who venture into the green space do so with a relatively high social and emotional cost. This segment reveals that they feel ostracized from their neighbors, families, and friends. Meanwhile the Middle Green said they fear attracting the negative judgment of their peers if they go out on a limb to purchase green products. Until green products and services feel normal and adhere to normative pricing, the Middle Green are unlikely to embrace them.

Green Guilt
Nearly half of Americans claim to feel guiltier “the more they know” about how to live a sustainable lifestyle. Super Greens feel twice the guilt as the average American. Even among the Green Middle, guilt plays a role. As it increases, these consumers want to retreat to the comfort of ignorance.
“Understanding the prevalent misuse of appeals to a sense of guilt, we can see where sustainability marketing has gone wrong,” says Williams. “People don’t need to know about the state of polar bears in the Arctic to turn off the lights--paradoxically it may be stopping them from doing so.”

Green is the New Pink
The barrier to adopting sustainable behaviors is even higher for men. Fully 82% of our respondents said going green is “more feminine than masculine.” More men identified as Green Rejecters, and the ranks of the Super Greens were dominated by women. This feminization holds men back from visible green behavior like using reusable grocery bags or carrying around reusable water bottles.

There’s a Big Opportunity for Mainstream Brands
When asked if they would rather purchase the environmentally responsible product from a familiar brand or purchase a product from a company who specializes in being green, 73% of Americans opted for the known, mainstream brand. A history of poor performance--or at least the perception of it--among lesser-known brands prevents consumers from taking the leap. “You would think the Seventh Generations of the world would have the clear advantage, but what excites us is how much potential the Proctors and Unilevers also have in this space because consumers are comfortable with their brands and trust they’ll perform,” says Williams.

The Complexity of Carbon Calculus
Is it worse to use cloth or disposable diapers? The vast majority (82%) of Americans cannot even begin to calculate their carbon footprint. This fact could be why 70% of Americans would rather cure cancer than fix the environment; they need messages to be personal, positive, and plausible--which the current marketing environment is not.

Closing the Green Gap
To close the Green Gap, the study found, leading organizations should find ways to normalize sustainable behaviors. The twelve recommendations provided include:

  • Make it Normal:The great Middle Green is not looking to set themselves apart from everyone else. They want to fit in. When it comes to driving mass behavior change, marketers need to restrain the urge to make going green feel cool or different, and instead make it normal.
  • Eliminate the Sustainability Tax:The high prices of many of the greener products suggest an attempt to limit or discourage more sustainable choices. Eliminating the price barrier eliminates the notion that green products are not for normal citizens.
  • Make Eco-friendly Male Ego-friendly:Sustainability must strike a chord with male consumers by considering what works in traditional marketing. For example, automotive brands with alternative fuel vehicles are finding success by sticking to what has been shown to work — sleek ads with an emphasis on speed and design.
  • Lose the Crunch:Just because a product is green doesn’t mean it must be packaged in burlap. For green marketing to succeed, it must be liberated from the traditional stereotypes to emphasize the most compelling personal benefits.
  • Hedonism over Altruism:The emotional tenor of sustainable marketing to date has been focused on appeals to Americans’ altruistic tendencies, but our research shows that this is to deny human nature. Wise brands are tapping into enjoyment over altruism.

The Mainstream Green study included global comparisons between China and the U.S., revealing that China has a more pronounced base of motivated green consumers who are hampered by broad access to sustainable products. Read more about the Chinese Green Gap or view comparisons between U.S. and China here.

Bart King is the principal of New Growth Communications, a network of affiliated content producers and strategists serving clients in the emerging green economy. He is also Associate Editor of Sponsored Content for Sustainable Brands. Follow him @bart_king [Read more about Bart King]

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