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Green Consumers and the Mushiness Index

The latest study of Americans' green passions is fascinating reading, if you want a glimpse into Americans' green turn-ons and turn-offs, and maddening, if you are trying to figure out how to sell into this unruly market space.

A new market research study of Americans' green passions and buying habits is out this week, from the venerable Yankelovich. I've just seen a presentation on the findings, and it's at once fascinating and maddening. That is, fascinating if you want a glimpse into Americans' green turn-ons and turn-offs. Maddening if you are trying to figure out how to sell into this unruly market space.

First, the bottom line. "Given consumer attitudes today, green is best characterized as a niche opportunity in the consumer marketplace," says Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich. "It is a strong niche opportunity, but it is not a mainstream interest that is passionately held or strongly felt by the majority of consumers."

Or, perhaps more to the point: "The majority of consumers really don't care all that much about the environment. Green simply doesn't has not captured the public imagination."


After endless months of magazine covers, TV specials, Al Gore, Live Earth, and a gazillion other media stories and events, how can this be? After all the warnings about flooded coastlines, drowning polar bears, more Katrinas, and the increased threat of invasion of everything from infectious insects to rogue superweeds, why aren't people concerned? Has all this fallen on deaf ears?

Says Smith: "The fact is, the amount of media interest given to the environment far exceeds the amount of consumer interest. It's not that consumers aren't aware of the environment, but there's something missing in the way consumers are processing information given to them about the environment today."

Consider: 82 percent of Americans have neither read nor seen Al Gore's book or movie.

That will likely be news to the many environmental activists and professionals I hear from who proclaim that we've reached a "tipping point" or "inflection point" on the environment -- the notion that public sentiment is growing, and will soon lead companies and products to transform their ways of doing business. (This may be the real green business bubble I keep hearing about.)

The problem, explains Smith, is that green marketing realities fly in the face of conventional marketing wisdom. "People don't buy products. They buy solutions to problems," as Ted Levitt, a marketing guru at Harvard Business School, once famously put it. But since most consumers don't see the environment as a problem, green marketers must take an extra step, helping them not just to understand the problem, but to actually care about it.

Some of Yankelovich's findings are sobering, to say the least. For example, 37 percent of consumers feel "highly concerned" about environmental issues, but only 25 percent feel highly knowledgeable about environmental issues. And only 22 percent feel they can make a difference when it comes to the environment.

The Yankelovich study, like many others before it, offers a consumer segmentation model, dividing the marketplace into five groups (in declining order of commitment): Greenthusiasts (13 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 30 million consumers), Greenspeaks (15 percent), Greensteps (25 percent), Greenbits (19 percent) -- and the biggest group, Greenless (29 percent). As with other segmentation models, there is a rich lode of data and psychographics about each.

Yankelovich's segmentations are based both on attitudes and actual behaviors, which sets them apart from most others, which are based only on attitudes. This is where things get interesting. According to the research, green behaviors and attitudes often take divergent paths -- green attitudes don't always predict green behavior, and green behaviors often occur without accompanying attitudes. Example: Greenbits consumers say they are more inclined to pay more than Greenspeaks consumers for green products, but their behavior doesn't sync up -- they buy these products less frequently than the Greenspeak-ers.

All of which presents opportunities for green marketers to change attitudes as well as behaviors, if done so in a targeted fashion. For example, says Smith, if you're trying to change the behaviors of Greenless and Greenbits consumers, increasing their knowledge has nothing to do with it. "It is strictly a matter of making it personally relevant," he says. "This is the group that is most likely to think that the media are making things seem worse than they really are."

Making all of this even more challenging is something Yankelovich calls the Mushiness Index, a device developed by Daniel Yankelovich himself more than a quarter-century ago. It measures the firmness of opinion on a topic -- the degree to which consumers are comfortable and sure about how they think.

When it comes to the environment, opinions are pretty mushy, Yankelovich found. "The vast majority of people don't have very well-articulated views of the environment," says Yankelovich. "They can answer an overnight public opinion poll. But that's not an answer they can necessarily talk about in-depth or understand the costs and consequences about those things. Even something like global warming, where there's been a lot of talk, the distribution of opinion is not very firm."

There's a lot more good stuff here. You can watch a one-hour webinar on the Yankelovich study here (registration required).

The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all marketing strategy when it comes to green. That may seem like common sense, but such wisdom seems to elude most marketers, who still insist on pushing out marketing efforts that are variously too vague, too technical, or way too -- well, mushy.

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