Saturday, May 17, 2008

It Isn't Easy Being Green

In "Deflating the Myth," Adweek questions the common belief consumers care deeply about the environment and will alter their purchase decisions to select greener brands. According to research, 94 percent say they are willing to "personally to change some of the things (they) do in order to improve the environment," but just 26 percent say they "actively seek environmentally friendly products."

At times, the tone of this article is just a bit derisive of consumers. For example, Adweek says, "The irony... is that consumers are more demanding of the corporate sector than of themselves." This doesn't actually strike me as at all ironic; any individual consumer can have an imperceptible impact on the environment, but if manufacturers that produce tens of thousands of vehicles or millions of batteries improve their products or manufacturing processes, the benefits to the planet can be quite substantial.

Adweek suggests one way for brands to get consumers to pay attention to "green" messaging is to segment their audience (which is always good advice). For example, moms are more likely than non-moms to go green if they have information about how it will benefit their family. And contrary to popular perception, teens and young adults may be focusing more on their own problems than on Mother Earth's--in a recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of 18-24-year-olds, respondents were 50% more likely to say the cost of tuition is "very relevant" to them than to say the same about the environment.

The most obvious segment upon which brands could focus are those who are already environmentally conscious, but this group is the most dubious of green claims and are already quite hostile to big business (a contention advanced in very entertaining and informative fashion by Penn and Teller in an episode of their Showtime program, Bullshit!)

The Adweek article sums it up with a quote from Mike Lawrence, executive vp of corporate responsibility at Cone: "When a company comes along that is transparent, responsive, tells the truth, listens to suggestions and responds in some way, makes social and environmental commitments -- as well as financial ones-- and tries to live up to them, I would argue that company stands out as much as ever, and people notice and respond." In other words, you have to walk the walk.

A recurring theme on this blog is that social media is changing the way companies handle public relations and manage their image. The subject of "green marketing" provides an excellent way to understand how Word of Mouth (WOM) and a lack of transparency can harm brands.

Take, for example, the case of Sir Paul McCartney and Lexus. One of the most respected names in music and one of the most respected auto brands teamed up on a tour sponsorship and a charitable effort for Adopt-A-Minefield. When Lexus wanted to make a gift of a hybrid car to McCartney, one of the most socially conscious musicians on the planet, it must have seemed like the perfect synergy of PR, marketing, and corporate responsibility.

But somehow, this perfect idea got botched because Lexus or McCartney (or both) didn't walk the walk. if they were truly environmentally conscious, the car wouldn't have been delivered by plane to Sir Paul. The use of a cargo plane to deliver this car was "like driving the car 300 times around the world." The subsequent bad PR is causing both parties to play defense, with reports that McCartney is furious that Lexus delivered the car in this manner.

No spin control is going to put the genie back in this bottle. Green blogs are buzzing with criticism of Lexus, a brand that has until now enjoyed good WOM among the green set. Google has hundreds of links to news stories about this incident and the blogosphere is embracing the scandal, as evidenced by over 13,000 hits on Google.

Another example of green marketing that backfired was when Kermit the Frog sang "It isn't easy being green" for the hybrid Ford Escape. Environmentalists were quick to point out that Ford only planned on producing 20,000 of its hybrid SUVs per year, while continuing to produce almost 80,000 of its gas-guzzling F-series trucks per month.

As noted on, that campaign backfired and the term "Greenwashing" became synonymous with the firm's name. The term "greenwash," which means the act of misleading consumers regarding a brand's environmental practices, has entered consumers' vocabulary, and each embarrassing instance of a brand bragging about a tiny environmental baby step while ignoring bigger and more important environmental issues only reinforces consumer perception that brands are trying to "green up" primarily to polish their brand images.

These PR misteps are examples of why so many consumers are dubious of marketers' claims about environmental benefits. Perhaps if more firms were transparent and implemented environmentally-friendly changes because they were the right thing to do and not (seemingly) to support a new marketing campaign, we'd find consumers more receptive to green messaging.

Enjoy Kermit the Frog in his Ford Escape Commercial, an ad rated at 4.41 on a 1 to 5 scale for "greenwashing" by the visitors to (Personally, I think it's harsh to give this high a "greenwash" score to an ad for a 36-mpg SUV. Sure, you can find far more fuel-efficient vehicles, but can't we give credit to an American automaker for trying to meet consumer's demands for larger vehicles while also increasing fuel efficiency?)

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