Alex Haldemann on branding to cut through the green product noise

Alex Haldemann on branding to cut through the green product noise

Retail shelves are bursting with products claiming to be “green,” and consumer interest in purchasing ecologically is fast growing. So how does a truly green brand stand out?

Alexander Haldemann, CEO of MetaDesign, a global branding firm that has advised giants such as Apple, Nike and Samsung, has thought about this question a lot. A marketing guru, he knows what it is about "green" that consumers respond to and translates that knowledge into his work.

Haldemann will be sharing his advice at 3 p.m. Feb. 18 at GreenBiz Forum in Phoenix. (Not going? You can tune into the virtual event.)  In anticipation, GreenBiz had a chat with Haldemann a couple of weeks ago. 

Alex Haldemann
Alex Haldemann

Barbara Grady: What is the consumer mindset these days concerning sustainability?

Alex Haldemann: We live in a time when consumers expect products to be green, environmentally friendly and sustainable. Thankfully, consumers are waking up to the impact we have on the earth. There are solid numbers to support this. Nielsen polled 30,000 consumers in 60 countries and found that 55 percent were willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to making a positive impact on the environment.

Indications in the past were that people who had high incomes and were college-educated urban dwellers were interested in green products. But the line is absolutely blurring. It is no longer a niche market. 

This change is not only among consumers but among products. You now have more green products at a wide range of prices. ... You have new offerings and big brands coming into the green market, like Clorox Green. 

Grady: So what works? How can you differentiate your truly earth-friendly, sustainable product from the plethora of green claims on the shelves?

Haldemann: Branding starts with understanding the consumer. ... Brands need to determine the needs of their consumers and the best messages to get to them. It really boils down to caring about who is my consumer, my audience, and what are their needs. 

Consumers are skeptical about what is green, and overwhelmed with green claims, so it's important that brands know what motivates their consumers. For example, studies show consumers are more likely to purchase products that have a third party authentication, like USDA Certified organic, rather than a claim that simply says a product is "natural."

As more and more products claim to be green, understanding your consumer and what motivates their buying behavior is crucial. For example, in green cleaning products for households, newly expectant mothers can be a target audience. They want to provide a safe environment for their children and don’t want to surround their babies with chemicals. So they are looking for the safest, most natural options.

Grady: Okay, once I know who are my consumers, then what?

Haldemann:  Once you understand your audience, then you message to their needs. Be specific. Green brands have not done that in the past.

You have to tell your own story that differentiates you. Green is not a differentiation. Green is like a commodity. You need to have a focused message.

The brands today that work are very distinctive. You need to be very specific to be heard. ... The greatest brands today have the fewest messages.

The classic example is Apple. Coca-Cola is another. Coca-Cola has a simple message — happiness. 'We bring happiness to you,' and it works. 

Tesla is a great example in the sustainable market: It is a luxury sports car and environmentally friendly. Those two messages and that’s it. 

If you have too many messages, you dilute your brand and confuse the consumer.

Grady: So what characteristic should that one message or two messages have?

Haldemann: Good brands we know today tell a story. But when everybody tells the same story, the chances that your brand will be picked by the consumer is small. You have to tell your own story, a story that differentiates you.

I am a big fan of Method, the soap company. Their story is "people against dirty." It's great messaging in beautiful packaging. The fact that it is also a green product is something you discover later on; they don't lead with that.

Mud Jeans is another good one. The Amsterdam-based Mud Jeans are beyond ecological. The jeans are made from organic cotton, produced under fair working conditions and packaged using recycled materials. But the story that makes Mud Jeans truly unique is that they lease jeans. By allowing consumers to lease jeans for a year at under $6 a month, Mud can recycle materials and use them for new fashion items and cut down on resources.

Earth Friendly Products was the first company in the U.S. to be carbon neutral. They recycle everything. It is a company with a great story and great products. Their No. 1 priority is to create products that are environmentally responsible at a good value.

Grady: Anything else you would like to add?

Haldemann: You have to live by what you promise. ... If you don't deliver what you promise, your brand can be dead within a day.

Engage consumers using social media. Everyone knows social media is a great way to connect with customers, but the real goal is to engage consumers by creating a community where people can talk about your brand with unfiltered reviews, and you can openly respond to their feedback with transparency.