The Problems with Green Marketing -- and How to Solve Them

The Problems with Green Marketing -- and How to Solve Them

Recently I sat down to discuss the state of green marketing with Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries. Along with her father and business partner, Al Ries, they are two of the world's best-known marketing consultants and authors of such classics as Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind and most recently, War in the Boardroom.

Claudia Girrbach: What's wrong with a green message and brand position?

Laura Ries: Just being green is not enough.

The purists look for green products. But the majority of people don't make decisions purely on green. Although many consumers think green is nice, when given a choice they select the brand they like or the lowest-priced product.

For many green brands that leaves them nowhere, since they are not the cheapest and own a weaker brand position.

CG: Why does the consumer find green a weaker offering?

LR: Consumers perceive that green is not as good as the regular stuff.

It is the same problem when "diet" is put on a product. The brand owners want consumers to think of diet products as healthier and with fewer calories. But people instantly think the diet product must taste disgusting.

With a "green" label, consumers think that the product is over-priced, that it's not going to work, or doesn't taste as good.

That is a huge problem facing green products. For a green product to move beyond the green enthusiasts and cross-over to the mainstream, the consumer will need to think of the brand in a different way. To do that, work green into the message, but also remember to build a strong brand.

CG: Should green marketers provide a stronger case about the environmental impact?

LR: Selling green on the hard data sounds very logical to left-brained management, engineers and sustainability practitioners. The facts even appeal to consumers when asked about their concern about the environment and desire to buy green.

Then consumers go into the store and leave their logical brain behind. Consumers buy with their emotional side -- based on a gut decision. They are not considering facts and figures when buying a bar of soap.

CG: If green alone is not a good position, what's a more workable solution?

LR: In a crowded category, just remaking the product into something that is green is unlikely to be compelling. A better approach is to create a new category.

No one wanted a better soap that killed more germs, but a new category of hand sanitizers was a big hit.

Potential new categories should combine green with another strong attribute.

Green + convenience -- With our busy lives, convenience is sought out.

Green + highest performance -- You may want to spend even more to make your green product the premium category.

Green + costs savings -- Consumers like to save money. Energy saving products made inroads.

Green + feel-good -- Most consumers are not just self-centered. They want to put some green into their life, if easy.

People are a bit hesitant on green. So provide that extra motivating factor, that extra push into green.

CG: So how should a company launch a green product?

LR: Early adopters in most categories want to show off. In the case of green, many want to show other people how green they are. They aren't necessarily doing it just for the environment, but to make a statement.

Obviously the person buying knows the product is green, so how can the buyer show other people they bought green without bragging. That's why a visual difference is so important for a green product.

The Toyota Prius is an example and one of the biggest successes of green marketing. When the car was launched, it looked different from anything on the road. You could spot one a hundred miles away. Was it better looking than most cars? No! But it was distinctive.

Other car companies made their green hybrids look like regular cars. They promoted "your regular car that is also green." The enthusiasts said, "Forget it!" Those early adopters wanted to show they were driving a green car.

Trying to make the green product look exactly like the regular stuff is the wrong approach. Help the consumer make a statement and show others that they are green. Be visually different like the Prius. Or maybe add a color to the more environmentally friendly toilet paper to make it stand out.

CG: You emphasize the importance of selecting the right name. What strategies would you use to name a green product?

LR: First and foremost avoid using "green" in the name. It is too generic. "Green" is used by so many brands that it is almost meaningless.

The word "natural" has the same problem. There is Nature's Way, Nature's Choice, Nature's this and Nature's that.

There is no way to build a strong brand on a generic name that is indistinguishable by the consumer.

Nissan Leaf is an interesting way to allude to green without using "green" in the name. I would have built on that strong name. For the first year or two, only sell models that are green to provide a visible difference on the street. The "Leaf" name combined with the color green on the car would provide a powerful visual to drive the idea of the brand into the mind of the consumer.

Then you have Green Works by Clorox. Clorox had a great idea to launch as a separate brand that focused on green. But I think they chose the wrong name.

A great name is unique. Using a word that provides a connotation of what the product does is ideal. "Swiffer" revolutionized the mop category with a name to match. "Purell" is another great name that captured the hand sanitizer category.

CG: What about price?

LR: Costing more is not a bad thing if provided by a strong brand. One definition of a brand is a product that consumers will pay more for than the equivalent commodity.

Consumers generally perceive that a green product would cost more, given the difficulty of making a product green.

CG: You recommend building a brand on a long-term trend and to avoid fads. How does that prescription work for green brands?

LR: There is no doubt that more green products are a necessity to save the environment for future generations. Green brands are the right direction. That being said, it takes a long time for people to make fundamental changes.

Eating less red meat is a long-term trend that has been reinforced by decades of messaging about the health dangers of too much red meat. The decline has been steady yet slow.

Many would be discouraged with a declining market, but high-end steakhouses bet that with red meat being an occasional menu item, that consumers would want the best steak at those times when they do indulge.

Whole Foods is another brand that recognized a new trend early.

When I was a kid, there was just one natural food store in the city and that's where pot-smoking hippies went to shop. At that time, it was unthinkable that a large chain on the scale of a Kroger or Safeway could be built as a natural food grocer.

But Whole Foods was not an overnight success. At first Whole Foods was narrowly focused in its scope. It was careful about its selection of locations.

My advice is to start slow, learn along the way and stay focused.

CG: What if the green brand is already launched but having challenges or a company has yet to launch a green brand?

LR: If your green brand is facing challenges, it is time to take a hard look at what you are doing. Is the strategy right? Is the name right? Is the logo/slogan right? You might need to tweak things or you might need to make major changes.

The same approach for a company that has yet to launch a green brand. Make sure to take a really hard look at the brand. Get outside opinions and advice. When you work so hard and so long on something you can lose perspective.

You only have a split second to get the attention of the consumer. Can you tell your story and have them remember your brand instantly? Having the right name and visual will make the brand building process go a lot smoother.

The last thing everybody needs when building a brand is patience. It takes time to get any brand off the ground. And I think it takes even longer for a green brand.

While green is good, there is always a bit of hesitation from mainstream consumers. Do they want to pay for it? Do they think it works as well? Those are two big hurdles that need to be overcome.