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Marketing to Consumers: Don't Think Green

Who'd have thought my background in marketing to women could be so helpful in understanding the mistakes many brands are now making in the sustainability realm?

Take the "green silo" versus integrated sustainability topic, for one. Within a recent Inspired Economist post by Emili DeMasi about green MBA programs, specifically, lies what I see as a broader truth. In most cases, brands and organizations -- like colleges --  are displaying their green label, rather than actually integrating sustainability throughout.

Just as was the big point in "Don’t Think Pink," the book I co-authored on marketing to women, I could now write a book called “Don’t Think Green.” With both titles, and upon first bookstore glance, readers might think: “Well, that’s counter-intuitive. Why’s a sustainability (marketing to women) expert writing about NOT thinking green (pink)?” Because these are cultural transitions, not just static situations that will never change.

shopping inset art Think about it: Most businesses have gone from seeing women as this separate, oddly “new” or “emerging” market (!) to understanding that they are the market for the most part. Now companies are a lot better at transparently reaching them. Women expect that brands will serve their needs and ways of buying without a pink or “for women” label.

We now seem to be reaching that same historic point in the sustainability realm, whereby the consumers most brands want to reach are savvy to “greenwash”( a la special packaging or corporate reports that talk, but don’t necessarily walk sustainability). Instead, these folks may soon expect sustainability from brands, and from all angles (product design and marketing to facilities, fleet management and community relations, etc).

That being the case, rather than helping a brand, hypervisible “look at me” green marketing may actually hurt it. If you need to shout about it, will your customers believe you are taking steps to fully integrate sustainability throughout your corporation? Maybe not. A squeaky green wheel does, initially, help call attention to your company’s shift and let sustainably minded consumers know they’ve been heard. Still, at some point the wise brand oils that wheel, stops the shouting and makes sustainability a fluid and integral part of their every function.

Universities can’t teach all the traditional MBA classes and then offer a sustainability seminar on the side. It doesn’t make sense. In the same way, brands can’t do everything else the way they always have, but slap a green label on it. It reminds me of the early days of marketing active sports to women, where a snowboard or bike might be painted a pastel color and tagged “for women,” without any real design change. Don’t let the green version of this happen to you!

Whether for an MBA program or on a brand, green labels may “feel” like a step toward sustainability by those who cleverly thought them up. However, they can distract from and potentially delay more intentional and committed integration of true sustainability.

Why give prospective students or consumers anything to be suspicious of? Instead, truly serve the rising and serious green expectations of all your stakeholders, and leave the “we’re so green” label behind.

Andrea Learned is founder and president of Learned On, LLC, a consultancy focused on sustainable organizational and consumer behavior. The original version of this post appeared on Andrea's "Learned On" blog and is reprinted with permission. 

Image CC licensed by Flickr users Jeff Keen and Plutor.

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