The Making and Marketing of Sustainable Brands

Two Steps Forward

The Making and Marketing of Sustainable Brands

I am always excited and energized by the environmental professionals at the world’s largest brands who have devoted their careers to helping their companies align environmental responsibility with business success. In the case of Al Ianuzzi, this has been a three-decade-long quest, one that has contributed mightily to placing his employer, Johnson & Johnson, consistently among the world’s most admired companies. Along the way, Ianuzzi — J&J’s Senior Director Product Stewardship, WW Environment, Health and Safety — has watched his and other companies try, with varying degrees of success, to build green brands and products.

Now, he’s brought that expertise to a new book, published today: Greener Products: The Making and Marketing of Sustainable Brands. (Full disclosure: I wrote the book's foreword.) Recently, I asked Ianuzzi to talk about the book and what he’s learned.

Joel Makower: So Al, why another book on green marketing?

Al Ianuzzi: Actually, this is a book on developing greener products and marketing the greener attributes of your products. I know there are books out there on designing for the environment and on green marketing, but I was not aware of any books that combined the two, and I think that’s critical.

Makower: It’s interesting that Johnson & Johnson isn’t widely seen as a green marketing company. That is, if you name the companies that are actively doing green marketing, I’m not sure J&J would be on that list.

Ianuzzi: I didn’t write this book as a Johnson & Johnson employee. This is written by me as an individual practitioner in the field. Johnson & Johnson is very conservative when it comes to communicating externally, and we’re just starting to get going on trying to do green marketing ourselves. It’s something that we’re very shy about.

Makower: Tell me a little bit about what J&J’s green marketing journey has been and how it’s informed what you’ve written.

Ianuzzi: We didn't really embrace green marketing until about three years ago. We made it one of our objectives to focus on. I’m part of the worldwide environment health & safety group, and we have always been developing greener products. I mean, we’ve had a Design for Environment program since the late 1990s, and we’ve had product stewardship goals from the early ‘90s, like minimizing packaging, but we’ve never really tried to take it to our customers. We realized that we were going to have to communicate that because a lot of other companies are doing that, including our competitors, and our customers assume we’re not doing anything if we don’t speak about it.

So it is becoming a business necessity to let our customers know about the greener products that we have and the greener attributes of our products, and we see that across all three of our sectors. We operate in consumer products, pharmaceuticals, and medical device and diagnostics, and all the customers are looking for greener products. It’s more becoming a necessity.

Makower: I think what you’ve just described fits the majority of companies, particularly large ones, but also lots of small to midsize ones, that have for years have been engaged in waste reduction, energy efficiency, reducing toxics and everything else, but haven’t for whatever reason found need or desire to talk about it. I think in some ways, J&J may be a poster child for that whole phenomenon. What have you learned about how companies start talking about this stuff in a way that doesn’t get them into trouble?

Ianuzzi: First of all, you have to have a greener product to talk about it, and it’s got to be legitimate. It’s got to be based on real improvements that you can demonstrate, and that are based on data.

Whenever we talk to our attorneys about speaking publicly about anything on a product that’s improved, you’ve got to jump through all types of hoops. The first things most attorneys say is, “No.” So you have to convince them that there’s real data behind it. And once you have good data, it has to be communicated in an appropriate way so that you’re not exaggerating your improvements. It has to be based on what I would say is sound science and data.

Makower: But I think that there is another issue here. A lot of the initiatives that you undertake to reduce your footprint aren’t part of the value proposition of the products. Reducing packaging waste, for example. Part of what the company does to be sustainable — and, therefore, to have a sustainable brand — isn’t about the products themselves, but about overall business operations. How do you address that?

Ianuzzi: There are two parts to it. When you want to buy from a socially responsible company or a good corporate citizen, you want to know that they’re making the product in a proper way — one that’s considering current science and current knowledge when it comes to the way you operate your facilities. You want to see them have set goals to try to deliver on those goals.

And also that you’re manufacturing in an ethical way. As we know, a lot of firms are in trouble for manufacturing products at subpar manufacturing facilities in developing nations. So customers — both those who buy products off the shelves as well as B-to-B customers — want to know that you’re keeping an eye on the ball when it comes to that. Then, when they buy your product, they want to know what’s the benefit to me as a customer or consumer that is making me feel good about using your product. In some cases, that’s lower environmental impact, or it could be supporting a cause that’s related to the product, the type of product that you’re purchasing. So I think that customers are looking for both.

Makower: What are the top green marketing attributes that you found companies are deploying?

Ianuzzi: First of all, meeting the customers’ needs. It has to tie into the product directly so there’s a clear line of communicating the environmental benefits of a product. So, for example, if my customer is interested in a more natural product, I want to make it very clear why this product is more natural, what’s better for them, what I have improved from previous versions or compared to competitors. It’s got to tie directly into that.

That ties into the use of well-respected, well-known ecolabels. As you know, there are hundreds of different labels out there. In the book, I looked at which ecolabels are being used by the leading companies, and there is only a handful of them. I think using those well-respected ecolabels is critical to communication. Consumers and customers only understand a handful of ecolabels to begin with.

Just slapping an eco label on it alone is not good enough. And we’ll also see companies use their own branded programs, like Proctor & Gamble’s future friendly. Our company uses Earthwards as a process to make our products greener, and use that as a banner so that it’s clear to customers that this product has greener attributes.

We’ve also seen more of a desire by customers to make a difference with their purchase decisions. So having a cause associated with your product. If you’re buying a product that has greener attributes and it’s supporting a cause, it seems to resonate more with consumers that are more concerned with greener products.

Makower:  think one of the challenges companies face is thinking about how to begin. In other words, do you begin with a product and then ask, “What are the green things we can say about this product?” Or do they begin with, “What’s the ideal story that we want to tell?” and then begin the design process? In other words, what’s the right interplay between marketing and design?

Ianuzzi: It definitely has to be a partnership. A lot of companies, like the one I work for, are heavily marketing-led. So, you can come up with various ideas, but if marketing doesn’t think it’s going to resonate in the marketplace, they’re just not going to have it. So this partnership of finding what the customer is looking for, and then partnering with R&D and how to make it to meet those needs, is the really critical interface. The sweet spot you’ve got to hit is being able to get everybody on the same page, having a process to do that, and being able to deliver.

It all ties back to what’s going to resonate with the customer — what does the customer want? As I mentioned earlier, customers are looking for greener products. Sometimes, they’re not really sure what it is they’re looking for, and that’s where you have to help them.

It’s kind of a balancing act — getting the voice of the customer, then translating those customer desires or demands into your product, then being able to tell them in a clear manner how this product is meeting their needs and how it’s making them more sustainable and helping them meet their sustainability goals.

Makower: Some of us have scanned green marketing lately and have suggested that its best days may be behind us, that it’s really not serving as much of a purpose as it used to. Do you agree, or do you feel that the best days of green marketing are still ahead of us?

Ianuzzi: I think they’re still ahead of us, and the reason I say that is by looking at what customers are asking for. I’m fortunate to be able to operate in my current role in both the B-to-C and B-to-B environments, and I’m seeing across the board a desire by all customers for greener products. In our paradigm, and a lot of companies can say this, our biggest customer is Walmart, and Walmart is asking for greener products. So are other big retailers, like Tesco. The big home improvement giants like Lowes and Home Depot are also trying to market greener attributes of their products.

I think this is going to become more and more important, and we’re even seeing that during the recession, people are still looking for greener products. A lot of times, it has cost savings associated with it, and I think that’s a very important part. I came to a conclusion in this book that I look at greener products that not as a premium product, per se. I mean there will be some niche products that will be of a premium nature that will be of a greener type of product, but I think customers are looking for a product that works well and also that’s greener, but are not paying extra for it.

That’s really where the growth area is. And I think it’s a tiebreaker when it comes to products. So if I can go to a store or if I can purchase something if I’m the business from someone who has everything being equal, it works well, and it meets my needs well, and one product is greener than the other and you can demonstrate it — well, why not purchase that greener product?

So I really think that it’s still ahead of us. There’s better days ahead of us when it comes to green marketing and making greener products.