Earth Day is the Super Bowl of green. The one day a year (with an accompanying hype-week) when environmental advocates promote their cause on their terms: care more and consume less; get involved; contribute. Earth Day is the supreme occasion for positioning what it means to be green. Unfortunately, the rest of the year, NGOs are in a losing battle to define what green means in the minds of consumers.
Recent research we did here at Penn State confirms that green marketing messages comprise a tiny fraction of what’s out there. Tried and true marketing heuristics like celebrity, price and humor are still far more common. Although enviro-friendly packaging claims and certification labels are sprouting up more and more, there is no support for the idea that “green is everywhere.” It’s a niche.
And among the few-and-far-between green messages, corporations, associations and front groups have an overwhelming share of voice. Of 414 prime-time green ads broadcast during a three-month period (out of more than 26,000 total ads), only 22 were from advocacy organizations. Auto companies and energy concerns (along with their association front groups) were the primary sponsors. Therefore, one key challenge for environmental communicators is finding ways to turn up the volume, to be heard in an increasing cluttered information marketplace.
In addition to being heard, enviro-NGOs have to decide what to say. Here again there is a gap between environmental advocates and green marketers. A longitudinal study of 30 years of green ads in National Geographic Magazine, the bellwether nature publication in the US, reveals some telling trends in this regard. In addition to tracking the number of ads and their sponsors, we took a look at how green was being pitched. We used the common “product benefit ladder” approach. Over their life span, most brands move from information ads about product features and functionality, to a focus on consumer benefits, and, ultimately, to purely emotional appeals. Eventually you become Coca-Cola (latest tagline: Open Happiness).
It turns out the same evolution has been happening for green. Beginning in the 1990s, environmental appeals began to focus less on information, and more on why it is a consumer benefit, and how it can fulfill an emotional need. Many modern green marketing appeals are not about the environment as much as they are about projecting social responsibility (being green to be seen), in-group acceptance with a movement, or the simple emotional satisfaction of contributing to sustainability. And as green has become more intangible, it has become easier for marketers to make general associative appeals to it, without specifying any concrete environmental benefits.
Environmental advocates, for the most part, have stuck to much more basic informational approaches (our research has also shown that advocacy appeals tend to be much more about loss, while green marketers focus on gains). There is a strong motivation in cause promotion to start by “winning” the argument. This approach, however, is at a disadvantage when it comes to winning positioning battles. The mental associations people have with brands (and concepts like green) are largely emotional, not rational. It is easy to get stuck in the rhetoric—many have argued that the Democratic Party made this same mistake in recent years when it came to the branding of the political parties. In addition, many environmental advocates are averse to engage in emotional appeals because they see it as a marketing tactic (and therefore synonymous with consumerism).
These trends have meant that brand green has been defined almost exclusively by marketers. For them green is a (relatively minor) segmenting tool and heuristic device. But what is minor in the context of the global marketing machine is a major challenge for environmental communicators. Advocates should enjoy their (earth) day in the sun, but should wake up the next day focused on engaging audiences on an emotional level, and on a larger scale, the rest of the year.
This piece originally appeared on Compro.