Studies consider the changing face of the green consumer

With Earth Day looming, several sustainability branding experts suggest ways that the green movement could -- and should -- become more mainstream.

For some reason, I have been barraged in the last few weeks with survey information and proclamations about consumer behavior and the sustainability movement. Maybe its the inevitable Earth Day pitch deluge. Rather than write about each of them separately, I'll reference several here in one uber-entry. In my mind, there are three overriding themes from this research for anyone that wants to use green messages in their marketing:

  1. Companies are being too niche with their marketing; green is more mainstream than they think although people still won't buy solely on green credentials alone.
  2. A renewed focus on reaching men is probably a good idea.
  3. Don't forget about social networks.

The first study you should look at is from OglivyEarth, which bills itself as a "sustainability consultancy." It's new study, called "Mainstream Green: Moving sustainability from niche to normal," finds that 82 percent of Americans have green buying intentions, but only 16 percent have true green resolve. That is, they will talk a good game, but won't necessarily buy on green credentials alone if some other factor outweighs it. In fact, 73 percent said they would rather purchase the environmentally friendly options from a brand that they know rather than go with an unknown brand.

The other, potentially more serious, theme explored in the report is the idea that half of the roughly 1,800 Americans that make up the survey sample associate green or environmentally friendly products as being for "Crunchy Granola Hippies" or "Rich Elitist Snobs." There's no middle ground. The report reads:

"No wonder the Middle has proven difficult to motivate: marketing has inadvertently been positioning the category as niche rather than mainstream, sending the Middle the signal that is 'not for them.' We don't market Budweiser the same way we market Stella Artois, so why are we trying to motivate the Green Middle with the same tactics we use for the highly motivated Super Green niche? As marketers know, you can't motivate a mass movement with niche marketing."

The other big finding of this particular survey is that 82 percent of the respondents agreed with the idea that going green is "more feminine than masculine." So, it makes sense that green marketing appeals to women because last time I checked we go to the grocery store more often than men -- even in well-balanced marriages or domestic partnerships. But apparently a significant part of the population has been alienated by the approach so far.

Oglivy makes some recommendations for how green marketers should proceed. I especially appreciate the advice suggesting that markets appeal to American's innate hedonism. The press release for the study notes: "Wise brands are tapping into enjoyment over altruism."

Another study you should consider is from marketing firm BBMG, which has released a new study called "Unleashed: How New Consumers Will Revolutionize Brands and Scale Sustainability."

This study looks at the premise that big brands might be able to appeal to consumer pragmatism in order to help generate more interest in products that are sustainable. BBMG says this group of consumers -- who "unit pragmatism and purpose" -- represents about 30 percent of the U.S. population. There were approximately 2,650 "conversations" that informed BBMG's research.

In the press release for the report, BBMG Chief Strategy Officer Raphael Bemporad wrote:

"For brands to take sustainability to scale, they can no longer rely on the dark green consumer. Instead, they need to engage New Consumers, who are just as concerned about the environment but also realistic about factors like price, performance, convenience, health and safety."

Alternatively, you could think of these group as "Pocketbook Environmentalists," as described by Lynn Jurich, the cofounder of solar installation and financing company SunRun, in a recent blog entry for the Huffington Post. Jurich writes:

"They're going green primarily because it makes good financial sense, but the fact that it benefits their families' health and the environment also makes them feel good. More often than not, they no longer have to choose between their pocketbooks and the planet."

The importance of social media is another theme that pervades some of the marketing guides and recommendations that have been published over the past few months. For insight, you can consult a new analysis from Sustainable Brands, called "Sustainability 2.0: Current trends at the confluence of social media and CSR." This particular study looks at the marketing practices of 50 global companies. A couple of high-level observations:

  • 82 percent of the companies plan to increase their investment in sustainability-related activities on Facebook in 2011
  • 91 percent of them found Twitter to be a "friendly" platform, and they plan to double their investments in this communication vehicle by 2015
  • Just 12 percent of the companies have a dedicated sustainability channel on YouTube
  • 78 percent of the surveyed companies have a downloadable corporate social responsibility (CSR) report and unique Web site

Why social media? The study suggests: Authenticity. The report notes:

"The potential rewards for companies that properly manage authentic communications are enormous. Authenticity not only allows companies to more effectively manage their external reputations and brand receptions; but also encourages greater employee engagement and improved recruitment opportunities. And the most authentic companies are opening up new market opportunities because they avoid being defined by market perceptions."

One other resource for those intently focused on the green marketing challenge, a book that was released in February 2011 called, "The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding." The book is written by Jacquelyn Ottman, who is a green marketing expert with a client list that includes more than 60 companies from the Fortune 500, such as 3M, Nike, GE and Johnson & Johnson.

This is a book that is chock full of really practical suggestions, including how to establish credibility, how to design products, and how to work with external partners to amplify the message. There are case study references from two companies that Ottman holds up as examples: Timberland and Starbucks. For those who love simple check lists, there is even "The 20 New Rules of Green Marketing." Here are three of my favorites from that list:

  1. Save me! - This one urges marketers to spare the images of babies and dying planets. Play off mainstream interests, such as how to save money by going green.
  2. Businesses are their philosophies. (I'll quote this one directly.) "It used to be that companies were what they made. International Business Machines. General Foods. General Motors. Now businesses and brands are what they stand for. Method. Starbucks. Timberland."
  3. A life-cycle approach is necessary. If one part of a product is green, but another part of it isn't, the whole value equation falls short.

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