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Turn greener products into a profitable business strategy

A new handbook, considered in this review, explores the evolution of successful green marketing at big companies like GE and Johnson & Johnson.

Green marketing works, sometimes spectacularly well, but getting results takes courage. That’s my takeaway from the second edition of "Greener Products" by Al Iannuzzi, senior director of Environment, Health, Safety & Sustainability (EHS&S) at Johnson & Johnson. Fortunately, courage comes more easily when you have the evidence to build belief within your organization and a roadmap to achieve results.

"Greener Products" draws from extensive case study research, as well as Iannuzzi’s own experience in spearheading sustainable marketing strategies for one of the world’s largest brands. The handbook covers a wide range of topics that influence marketing strategy, with an accessible format that enables readers to broaden their knowledge of end-to-end green product development while going deeper into those aspects most relevant to them.

Diving in at business-to-business (B2B) green marketing, I noted that the second edition keeps pace with the evolution of the field, a valuable feature for corporate decision-makers who struggle to stay abreast of changes within an emerging discipline.  

According to the second edition, the five traits of successful green marketing include:

  1. Greener products are woven into the business strategy.
  2. Understand customers’ desires and goals, and align greener products to meet these needs.
  3. Clearly communicate greener characteristics with third-party certifications or company-branded programs. Use of communication tools such as environmental products profiles or company-generated labels.
  4. Be authentic and credible in all marketing efforts, substantiate all claims and be transparent.
  5. Sustainable branding is an enhancement to other brand qualities — the idea that it’s a great product and it has all these sustainable attributes. 

The first element represents a departure from the first edition, in which "a commitment from top management" held the top position (see this excerpt). The new emphasis on greener products as "woven into the business strategy" reflects a wider acceptance of green marketing in the past five years, as evidenced by numerous case studies in the book, including that of General Electric’s Ecomagination initiative, arguably the most successful B2B green marketing campaign created.

In the excerpt below, the author summarizes Ecomagination, a campaign he unpacks in several chapters of the book:

Ecomagination is a well-rounded top-down initiative that has been given significant attention by GE management. You would be hard-pressed not to have heard of this program since the company has used television commercials, print advertisements and digital marketing to communicate their greener product offerings. The company tags products that have improved environmental performance as Ecomagination, distributes reports and brochures, and maintains a dedicated website, and their CEO is very public in speaking about the financial and environmental benefits of this initiative.

Some companies pay lip service to sustainability but then fail to maintain an active presence or produce innovative products, but Greener Products focuses only on companies that are committed to strategies that produce results. As an example, GE has continued to demonstrate the practices that are described in the book.

Looking at the Ecomagination website, the results of more than a decade of dedication to product sustainability as a business strategy are abundantly clear. The company notes:

Ecomagination is GE’s growth strategy to enhance resource productivity and reduce environmental impact at a global scale through commercial solutions for our customers and through our own operations. As a part of this strategy, we are investing in cleaner technology and business innovation, developing solutions to enable economic growth while avoiding emissions and reducing water consumption, committing to reduce the environmental impact in our own operations, and developing strategic partnerships to solve some of the toughest environmental challenges at scale to create a cleaner, faster, smarter tomorrow.

In short, GE’s sustainability strategy is integrated: it’s a source of innovation, a pathway to operational efficiency, a reflection of core values and a driver of growth. 

"For 12 years, GE has been committed to Ecomagination, our business strategy to deliver clean technology solutions that drive positive economic and environmental outcomes for our customers and the world," stated a GE executive on the website, offering one of many perspectives on this multi-faceted, deeply embedded green marketing program. The website also provides in-depth thought leadership, which is increasingly essential for sophisticated B2B marketing.

By consistently putting sustainability communication strategy on par with greener product development, the author demonstrates how the two work in tandem to achieve maximum ROI.  

"What good is a greener product if no one knows about it?" said Iannuzzi in an interview. "The appropriate communication of the greener attributes of your product is just as important as having an improved product."

Positioning one’s green marketing strategy as a business strategy may seem obvious, but GE’s success is more than a decade in the making and the path ahead was murky. As a marketer, I particularly appreciated the author’s product development chapters, which trace the steps that GE and dozens of other companies on their journeys toward integrating greener products into their portfolios. The steps described in the case studies in terms of both product development and marketing reflect lessons that readers immediately can leverage without incurring the costs and risks that the first-movers had to incur. 

What good is a greener product if no one knows about it?

If this leaves you wondering if it’s time to retire your well-worn copy of the first edition, think again. The second version’s updates do not negate the advice in the earlier publication. Companies that lag in weaving green into their businesses strategies likely still require a commitment from top management. In reality, most marketers remain where employees from the leaders likely began: still in need of buy-in from the boss in order to get green anything off the ground.

At the same time, the market drivers of green product development are becoming all-but-impossible to ignore. The author’s summary of growing consumer demand, retailers’ demands, B2B purchasing requirements and eco-innovation, coupled with the public’s growing concern over environmental threats and climate-related natural disasters, should restore belief within even the most discouraged of green marketers.

Nevertheless, successes such as the Ecomagination remain far from the norm, likely due to a lack of internal advocacy to push for green product development and marketing strategies. 

"It can be tempting to resign ourselves to the fact that we are merely marketers, communicators, social strategists, brand storytellers," wrote Iannuzzi. But in the right hands, "Greener Products" potentially could open up a significant source of revenue for companies, so long as a willing individual exists to voice the idea. Echoing the words of advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, Iannuzzi reminds us: "In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished."

Iannuzzi doesn’t sugarcoat the work ahead and hasn’t done so since we first met at a 2011 conference in Washington, D.C. What stood out then is what stands out now: an in-depth understanding of great green marketing as the outward expression of superior product design. When you "get" that, you have the keys to the kingdom: knowledge that can make or save your company millions.

Competitiveness in this rapidly changing world is defined by those companies that can get an edge: more market share, better access to raw materials and bona fide brand trust. Iannuzzi’s scientifically informed, evidence-based, field-tested guidance for developing cleaner, safer, healthier and more responsible products — and by extension, healthier supply chains — can help any company emerge as an industry leader. Getting instant access to the collective intelligence of the sustainable marketing field’s foremost strategists makes the second edition of "Greener Products" an indispensable reference for both practitioners and executives.

With razor-sharp insight, depth and rigor, Iannuzzi has created the Rosetta Stone of eco-innovation. This distillation of best practices provides ample evidence that green marketing can achieve extraordinary results, so long as the practice is embedded into business strategy via intentional design, is clearly conveyed and is easily understood by the target customer. All we need to supply is the vision to pursue the leaders’ path, the will to develop sustainable products, the creativity to educate our customers and the courage to fight for a better future.

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