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“Green Marketing Dead?” We're Just Getting Started...

KoAnnLast week, popular green business pundit Joel Makower posted a controversial piece entitled "Green Marketing is Over. Let's Move On".  While it is great to find some points of overlap with our colleagues at GreenBiz.com, we felt this piece missed the mark in some important ways and felt obligated to respond. We welcome your additions to our thinking. To us, however, the gathering of thought leaders about to convene in Monterey to discuss the current state of sustainable brand building speaks for itself:  While there may be some value in debating what in the end I’m guessing boils down to an argument more of semantics than substance, there is no question to us that both business and consumer facing innovation for sustainability, along with communication about it, is, and will continue healthy and active for decades to come.
If you doubt this, come see for yourself what the conversation is all about at Sustainable Brands '11
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Dear Joel,

My first thought on reading your recent piece announcing the death of green marketing, was, ‘how wonderful, we finally agree!’  In 2005 when we first began discussing whether ‘Green’ was the best frame for carrying forward a conversation about the global business shift we have both been working to drive, I argued that ‘green’ was doomed to die because, in marketing terms, “green” is a feature, not a benefit.  As all good marketers know, real customer engagement happens when marketers are able to get underneath a feature set to tap into and communicate a benefit that authentically speaks to an unmet personal need or aspiration. 

The jury may have been out at the time, but it seems more and more people are beginning to agree that to frame the current market shift, and therefore, marketing opportunity as green, misses the root of the culture shift that is taking place around us. At SLM, we believe we are not simply in the midst of a revival of the environmental movement of the 80’s.  Instead, we believe we are all slowly but surely becoming systems thinkers.  We are increasingly coming to universally understand that our business and consumer choices have a broad set of implications that we are only now beginning to understand, and for a myriad set of reasons, we are stymied as to what to do about it.

In their ongoing trend study, The Shift Report, our friends at Ci: Conscientious Innovation point to clear indicators that consumer purchasing interests today go far beyond environmental impact to encompass deeper social, spiritual and personal sustainability issues.  PhD researcher Renee Lertzman points out in her recent SLM article entitled “The Myth of Apathy”  that the green purchasing gap is much more of a tangle than a gap, and sets out to help us untangle the knot through insights drawn from the field of psychotherapy.

The reality is, consumers aren’t fooled in to thinking that because a brand slaps ‘green’ or ‘eco’ or ‘organic’ on the label, it has fully committed to creating shared value rather than just shareholder value. Consumers don’t have the time or resources to sort out the material impacts of the products they buy.  But they DO want to find brands they can trust to do this hard work for them -- to deliver the most delightful product possible at the price point they can afford, without wreaking havoc on the environmental and social eco-system that delivers that product to them or creating harm when the product is no longer of service.

We agree that communications attempting to motivate by fear or guilt, and product offerings that fail to innovate to meet emerging needs of individual consumers are doomed to fail.  This is one of the reasons we chose “Play On!” as the theme of this year’s Sustainable Brands Conference. We need to take ourselves a bit less seriously, and remember that the human spirit is built for creativity and problem solving, and that play is our natural means for doing so.

But from here, I’m afraid, we disagree.  Though you point out that your intention is not to lump in “public service campaigns aimed at getting people to change habits, together with with ‘green marketing’ aimed at getting people to buy things that are better for the environment", my concern is that you’ve set up a false dichotomy that risks leading earnest marketers and innovators astray by suggesting that the only alternatives for communicating about thoughtful brand innovation and purchasing alternatives is either through PSAs or “never to be successful green marketing” and nowhere in between or beyond. 

The reality is that getting people to change behavior, INCLUDING making smarter, lower impact consumer choices is intertwined, imperative, and can’t be relegated to the realm of PSA’s if it is going to lead to the sort of total culture shift we’re working toward.   From our standpoint, for you to suggest that consumer focused “green marketing…was a noble experiment in social and market transformation…that largely failed”, that “to continue to think it will somehow make a difference isn’t just folly", or that “it’s time to declare defeat and move on” is, in our opinion, misguided advice at best.

To conclude that because “It’s not working” we should quit, is cynical and counterproductive.  For nearly the past decade, we have been working alongside great thinkers like Bill McDonough, Michael Braungart, Peter Senge and countless others to redefine the goal away from simply ‘green’ innovation to a full systemic shift in thinking about the role of business, economy and consumption, toward a new vision where the better brands of the world ‘respect and delight all stakeholders in both current and future generations”. 

Later in your piece you suggest that ‘green marketing’ is missing the ‘bigger story’, stating instead that the real story is that companies are becoming greener despite consumer behavior.  You point to stories you’ve covered about companies like adidas, Pepsi, Avon, Nike, Puma, Levis, Proctor & Gamble, HP and Timberland, saying that we are unlikely to see communications about these companies' commitments in their product marketing materials or ads, and that these companies are not innovating in order to ‘sell more stuff’, but rather to cut costs, eliminate waste, engage employees and other ‘sound business reasons’.  Are you suggesting that the goal to drive top line growth and brand reputation while reducing impact is not a ‘sound business’ pursuit?  From our perspective, in today's transparent world, brand is first ‘who you are, what you do and how you do it – and THEN how you talk about it’, and these activities are inextricably intertwined.

In fact, I can point to a wide range of wonderful examples of consumer facing communications that go far beyond a CSR Report or website being put to market by many of the companies above (though these CSR Channels and websites are themselves being innovated to serve as better consumer relationship building vehicles as well.)  Certainly trying to sell “green” as a product feature, in isolation from a solid, context sensitive innovation strategy that reflects an understanding of individual customer need and the full impact (social and environmental) of the manufacture, sale and end of life of a product, died before it blossomed.  But that doesn't mean there are very real opportunities for brands to take advantage of a real and growing shift in consumer consciousness of the broader impact of business on society.  If you feel that consumer facing companies including the above, and many others we are fortunate to be close to such as Ford, Unilever, Coke and Nestle, do not see moving to innovate and ultimately market products and services that are more environmentally and socially relevant -- that create shared, rather than just shareholder value -- as being a driver of business growth going forward, then you are certainly not having the same conversations we are.

Our community is a community of brand innovators who believe that sustainable brands will be the leading brands of the future – that building them will require a new way of thinking -- new business models, a new set of tools, new partners, and a new way to talk about the work.  Far from backing off their commitments, our community is growing, deepening and maturing their commitment to crack the tough nut associated with the move beyond green, to help drive sustainable consumption by producing products that respect and delight all stakeholders, today and in the future.

Readers who are interested in learning what we’re learning about this topic from researchers like Suzanne Shelton, Conscientious Innovation, Rene Lertzman, Ogilvy Earth, Cohn & Wolfe, Saatchi S, Prophet, Brand Logic, GlobeScan and many others, as well as market shifters like Goodguide, Eco-Bonus, RecycleBank, Blab, the American Sustainable Business Council and Recycle Match, along with companies like Unilever, Nestle, Pepsi, Coke, Nike, adidas, HP, Daimler, Seventh Generation, J&J, Levis, Ford, Travelocity, North Face, Panera Bread, and hundreds more, may be interested in joining us at the 5th annual Sustainable Brands Conference June 7-10 where these leaders and others will address all the complexities that surround the move beyond green and what’s next for what some still want to call ‘green marketing’, but what we are promoting as building the better brands of the future.

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