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Green Marketing: It's Alive but Needs a Makeover

On Wednesday Joel Makower published a well thought out and well written article, "Green Marketing is Over. Let's Move On." The central points were "green marketing isn't changing consumers' minds, is ignored by the biggest marketers, isn't changing things, misleads consumers and doesn't give companies credit where it's due."

As a marketing firm that specializes in social change marketing, we have been on the "front lines" of this movement for over 20 years; first as a nonprofit, then working with small companies with sustainability in their DNA and, finally, with Fortune 100 firms jumping in for the first time. We have seen green waves come and go. Each time the tide rises a little higher. The bar is raised and more people participate. As with any tide, this one is receding and everyone wonders if that's the end of it. Spoiler alert: It's not!

With great respect and admiration to my good friend, Joel, most of what he says is correct when viewed from a business perspective, selling products primarily based on environmental attributes. To see it from the consumer perspective, let's reconstruct the arguments and tie some key points together.

1. It's not working. Consumers are confused. They don't trust companies but they do trust brands. Companies that align sustainability and profitability aren't "believable."

Consumers are confused. It is true. We've seen it in action in many instances. For example, after six years of running an award-winning retail program specifically designed to educate mainstream consumers on what organic means, they still don't know. There is simply too much misinformation for consumers to know whom to trust.

The notion that they trust brands but not companies doesn't go far enough though. Consumers don't trust companies or brands. Why? Brands haven't earned their trust in the environmental space. Too many brands jumped on the green bandwagon thinking that they could sell their products by slapping on a green sheen. Their actions created this trust backlash regarding all things green.

Consumers develop trust with every successful brand but with parameters. Step outside of those parameters and brands must re-earn that trust. Ever heard of Ben-Gay Aspirin or Colgate Kitchen Entrees. Didn't think so. Consumers didn't extend the considerable trust they had in the brands to those categories. The environmental space is no different. If a brand's consumer value proposition doesn't have an environmental aspect, the brand is starting over.

The brands that have successfully gained consumer trust in the environmental space have earned it through their actions, not by trying to pull the communications wool over consumers' eyes.

2. It remains a niche activity and is missing the bigger picture. Only two of 2010's top 10 advertisers tried in earnest to participate in green marketing and one of those, GE, is mostly B2B. Meanwhile GreenBiz is writing about some of the biggest consumer products companies making significant accomplishments and/or setting far-reaching goals that most consumers will never know about.

No one can really argue that the largest advertisers are cautious about participating. Nor can we argue that everyday many companies are focused on reducing their environmental impact because it makes good business sense.

The question that isn't addressed is that "if so many companies are reducing their environmental footprint, why aren't any of them talking about it?" Simple: These smart marketers know that consumers haven't extended trust to their brands in the environmental space and the risk of doing anything is greater than the risk of doing nothing.

3. It's not moving the needle and is deluding people into thinking that they are helping. Green marketing isn't changing behavior or affecting the critical issues, yet gives people the sense that they are doing something.

So why isn't green marketing changing the world? Because most marketers are only concerned with getting consumers to buy their products, not changing consumer behavior. For most brand managers, if the behavior change stops at the purchase, that is a successful campaign. Unfortunately, that is exactly why It's not working.

All of Joel's points have validity, but it is not good enough to call green marketing a distraction and just move on. We can and must do better for any environmental or social gains to be made therefore brands must address the heart of the issue: A lack of consumer trust regarding the motivations behind doing good for the environment.

How do we build that trust so that sustainability marketing can fulfill its dream and potential?

Joel cites transparency as "a fundamental building block of a green economy" moving forward. We agree. Transparency, whether the companies do it or have it done for them, is key to leveling the playing field and starts to create the trust that these brands so desperately need in the space. Transparency isn't all that is needed though.

Part of Joel's argument that is mentioned, but not directly addressed, is the need to hold companies "accountable for their environmental (and social) impacts." Until full cost accounting is incorporated into GAAP (we aren't holding our breath), there is not any financial way to hold companies accountable except through gross sales. Consumers can and should vote with their wallets. Some consumers will always be skeptical but we've seen that most give companies credit if the approach is done in a way that builds trust in the environmental space, not just leverages trust given in a different area.

How do we "move the needle" with sustainability marketing? Our approach is to create programs that incorporate measurable social change as part of the success criteria. In other words, move the behavior change beyond the purchase. This builds brand trust, loyalty and, ultimately, sales. There are a number of surveys and real-life examples that point out that consumers want to "do the right thing" and are happy to partner with brands to accomplish it. Give them the tools to realistically do more and, in doing so, the brand earns their trust in the environmental/social space.

Last, trust isn't crafted with one promotion or in one fiscal quarter. Trust is developed under a long-term plan that creates a foundation and builds over time. Trying to speed that trust along by jumping to the end is the antithesis of what is needed and fuels Joel's perspective.

So, green marketing … failed experiment that we should throw out or marketing approach that many failed to leverage properly? You decide. But don't be surprised when those who are doing it right run past with a smile.

Todd Troha contributed to this post.

Shelton Group CEO Suzanne Shelton response to Joel Makower's blog post also is available on


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