Go South, Green Brand: Lessons from the Front Lines of Green Marketing

Go South, Green Brand: Lessons from the Front Lines of Green Marketing

Anyone who has been working in this space long enough will have grown tired of consumer surveys regarding green products, brands, and their contradictory results (see Joel Makower's post "Earth Day, Green Marketing, and the Polling of America 2009"). The recent (in July) Green Brand 2009 survey, sponsored by cohn&wolfe, Esty Environmental Partners, Landor, and PSB, appears at first glance to tell us much that we already know -- that it is hard to know much about the mythical green consumer. Reading between the lines, however, there are several interesting data points and insights to draw from their 2009 ImagePower Green Brands Survey.

The basics: These four firms -- three WPP agencies and a sustainability consultancy -- surveyed over 5,000 people online across seven countries, asking respondents for their perceptions of the economy, the environment, green products, corporate responsibility, and projected spending habits. The results have interesting implications for companies who want to sell products, especially those exploring the viability of "green" products.

What can we learn? A few things, about the growing gap in attitudes between the North and the South, the importance of backyards, how basics still matter, and that the green brand leaders might not be whom you would expect.

Betting on BIC: I am not sure whether it was by accident or on purpose, but the survey design team included the BRIC countries without the R, creating a very interesting division between the Northern, "more developed" countries surveyed (U.S., U.K., France, and Germany) and the Southern, "less developed" countries (Brazil, India, and China). This "North vs. South" division has existed for decades in development and macro-economic circles, but has yet to strongly enter the corporate sustainability lexicon. Dividing the data this way can be instructive, as it unveils regional attitudes based on culture, geography, and level of economic development.

Respondents in BIC countries were twice as likely to spend more money for "green products" in the next year than those in the North. This makes sense for three reasons.

Firstly, those in "less-developed" countries have not been hit as hard by the recession. Secondly, those who are less well off are typically more affected by their immediate surroundings, and therefore a marginal increase in the quality of their environment has a greater impact on their quality of life, increasing their willingness to pay. Thirdly, there has yet to be a backlash against the saturation of green marketing in these countries that we have experienced in the North.

What does this mean for companies? Consider piloting products in BIC, or similar countries, with products that are more tailored to the region. And don't promote them the same way you would in the North: respondents in BIC countries were two to four times as likely to use social networks to find information on products as those in "more-developed" countries. And more people turned to the Internet, in general, for information in Brazil, India, and China than anywhere in the North.

Backyards matter: Despite heightened awareness of global warming and the proliferation of carbon reduction strategies at major corporations (much needed, mind you), it is clear that people still care about their own backyards. "Air, Water Pollution" topped the list as the most important green issue in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and China. More interestingly, "deforestation" and "cutting down trees" ranked as the number one green issue in India and Brazil (three times as important as the second green issue identified in Brazil).

The implication is that policies and geographies matter- Nike's recent resolution regarding the Amazon is more important in the South than the North. Being a good neighbor should be an extension of those same policies, and how you treat watersheds, airsheds, oceans, and stakeholders who live in and near them (a concept discussed in one of my previous posts) still has a major impact on how consumers view you and your products.

Companies should consider organizing their approach to sustainability by natural geography, instead of by product or even country. It is striking how much clearer water pollution becomes, for example, when you view the world by watershed. Two plants in the same county in Pennsylvania could be five miles apart, yet one drains into the endangered Chesapeake Bay, and one into the Delaware River. How you think about location makes a difference. For those interested in a primer in watershed-based approaches, see the Aspen Institute's Sustainable Water Systems: Redefining the Nation's Infrastructure Challenge (see particularly pages 12 and 31-34).

Don't forget the basics: By far the most important thing a company can do to be considered green, consistent across all seven countries, is to reduce "the amount of toxic or other dangerous substances in products and business processes." The second most critical action in all countries, except India, was recycling materials and using recycled content in products.

While there is a lot of talk about smart grids and reduced carbon footprints, it is evident that the Sustainability 1.0 issues of toxics and recycling, which can involve very personal impacts on human health, remain top of mind. These are also areas where consumers are able to get increasing amounts of information very quickly. These issues are simple but not easy to address, and they remind us that we need to get the basics right, no matter how innovative companies may be in other areas.

The leading green brands are not whom you might expect: What I found most surprising about this report was one page in the back that was not covered in the summary: The Top Ten 2009 ImagePower Green Brands by country. There was only one company in the Top Ten in all three BIC countries. That company? Microsoft. Not whom I would have expected, although it is hard to know what pool of brands have captured enough mindshare in all three of these countries to be contenders.

Still, companies looking for a sustainability strategy for the South could learn from Microsoft: For starters the company has unique websites for Brazil, India, and China, among others. Secondly, the "environmental principles" Microsoft focuses on are both simple and universal: Conserving, reducing, recycling, and developing safe and sustainable products. Thirdly, the company has a "Local Impact Map" that you can download. It is more about social programs than environmental ones, but is impressive in that it allows those interested access to Microsoft offices in each country and information on the impact their work and programs have there.

And what brands were considered in the Top Ten for countries in the North? Only two companies managed to make it on three of the four top ten lists across the US, UK, Germany, and France: IKEA and Dove. Unilever, the makers of Dove, have a long track record on sustainability and are listed in the Global 100 (100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World) and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index -- making them both environmental leaders and brand leaders. By comparison, IKEA and Microsoft are not listed on these indices.

This tells us something we did know before reading these survey results: whether you have just dipped your toe in sustainability, are making great strides under the radar, or are an established leader, when it comes to brand, messaging matters.

Stephen Linaweaver is associate principal at GreenOrder, an LRN Company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that, since 2000, has helped leading companies turn environmental innovation into business value.