Today it seems the whole world is looking at life through green-tinted glasses. Oil companies, nuclear power plants, fast food franchises, supermarkets, soft drinks, and even law firms are making claims to being green, greener, or even greenest. While some claims are admirable, others are sketchy at best. So does creating a more verdant view of your brand make sense as an entire nation’s mindset shifts toward hyperawareness of the issue?
The answer is: It depends. First let’s look at who cares.
What do you mean by “green”?
A recent study conducted by the Shelton Group and published in Advertising Age shows that 71% of consumers say they are willing to buy an energy efficient product only if it saves money. Ok, CFL bulbs save money-so that’s a no brainer. Hybrid cars may eventually save money, but many models cost considerably more up front. Fluctuating gas prices change that equation every time there’s a supply and demand hiccup.
One of the main problems with being green or buying green is knowing what’s really green and what isn’t. Maybe you grow organic vegetables, free of pesticides and machine tilling. But cross-country shipping creates triple the carbon footprint of traditionally grown local produce. Figuring this out is more than most people want to calculate for their tossed salads.
If you’re making a leading edge green product like wind turbines or solar panels, there’s no debate. These products are all about being green and have major money and policy issues driving them in the form of state and federal subsidies and tax credits. In addition, there is an idealistic segment of the marketplace that will pay substantial premiums to be an early adopter, sometimes for the personal recognition that goes with it, sometimes for a purely altruistic passion to make a difference. (Note that both motivations connect directly to the heartbeat of branding-self-esteem.)
Relevancy and real commitment can improve the sheen
If your brand can deliver direct dollar savings by being green, consumers will pay attention. But when the concept becomes more philosophical, it’s more of a challenge. Several factors appear to be important: The first is relevancy: How directly does your greenness affect the environment? You started a green accounting firm? Interesting, but hardly relevant to number crunching. Got a green lawn care service that uses electric equipment, organic fertilizers and composts all clippings and trimmings on your property? That’s relevant and might even earn a premium from the greenest among us.
Secondly, a measurable commitment will stand out. Countless companies have made claims to care about the environment. But Ben and Jerry’s was one of the few to specify their corporate contributions on an annual basis. Early in their corporate history, the founders established the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation to fund a variety of projects; it was then provided with 7.5% of the company’s annual pre-tax profits each year until its sale to Unilever. Ben and Jerry’s remains a highly popular brand, made more so by their commitment to community, including green, issues. (Unilever claims to support the philosophy but has taken away the guaranteed percentage of contribution.)
When being green adds no gleam
Maybe you started a recycling program in your office or plant? It’s a legal requirement in most states, Mr. Green Jeans. Have you cut emissions to meet a new standard, used more recycled materials to qualify for a contract, or reduced energy expenditures? What’s the real motivation on your part? Customers and prospects see right through these kinds of green smokescreens. Mention it on your web site, but don’t expect any great rewards when it’s clear that profit was your real motive.
And by all means, be careful what you claim. As noted above, greenness can be hard to articulate. Many companies have made spurious boasts and found a mountain of backlash waiting for them from the most avid and informed green advocates. Even legitimate claims can be troublesome. Toyota Motor Company was heavily attacked (unjustly so in my opinion) for making claims to being the greenest car company. Based on having the highest average fleet MPG and as a leader in hybrid technology, the claim seems at least somewhat justified. But the extreme green faction criticized their resistance to higher fleet mileage requirements as proof of their duplicity.
In 1971, Keep America Beautiful, Inc. launched one of the first green campaigns with a TV spot featuring Iron Eyes Cody, a Native American on horseback who turns to the camera at the end of the spot and sheds a single, bitter tear. The now infamous image became an icon for reducing pollution of all kinds. Today, decades later, green-themed actions are as politically correct as ever for your brand. But be careful to make commitments you can stick to and share cost savings with your customers wherever possible. Green schemes can be harder than they seem.