Stop Chasing the Elusive Green Consumer: Find Out What Motivates Your Core Consumer First

Stop Chasing the Elusive Green Consumer: Find Out What Motivates Your Core Consumer First

As Joel Makower points out in a recent article, a number of new surveys point to consumers claiming continued support for green products, but despite great intentions (and stated preferences), most consumers today are struggling with economic realities when choosing at the shelf.

In fact, when the rubber meets the road, stated behavior doesn't necessarily turn into purchases -- more than 75 percent of those surveyed by The Hartman Group late last year, couldn't actually name a sustainable product when asked the question -- do you really think those people are seeking out green products?

There is no question that selling sustainable products is a challenge -- so what's a green brand owner to do? While many retailers and brand owners struggle with defining and reaching the illusive "green consumer," some of my recent work suggests that the answer may be much closer to home: Energizing your core consumer with green product benefits may be much more effective in driving sales than trying to reach the illusive green consumer.

Marketing 101: Get to know your core consumer.
Take the produce section as an example. With the term "organic" a part of the American shopper's vocabulary for years, convincing your customers that sustainable produce is a good idea shouldn't be difficult, right? The reality is terms like "natural" and "healthy" are everywhere, driving confusion and making differentiation a challenge. Throw in long shopping lists, tight schedules, and crying children, and marketing messages go from useful to useless very quickly in the eyes of a busy mom.

It turns out that when you really get to know her, she cares about quality and freshness above all else. She may not want to spend on organic, or may not know what "sustainable" means in the produce section (do you?), but there are cues she gets, regardless of how busy she is. In working with a major North American grocery chain, we polled thousands of shoppers and found that "locally sourced" produce resonated more than any other sustainable term, including "organic." We talked with the shoppers some more and found out what local sourcing meant to them: To a number of consumer segments, locally sourced meant quality and freshness above all else, essentially because of implied proximity.

Pitching your green credentials may not be the answer.
These days, in almost any category you touch, "green" marketing abounds: From "green" detergent to "green" rental cars to "green" printer paper. Even oil companies and airlines are beginning to drum up their green credentials, bringing clutter to the green marketplace. Clearly, simply showcasing a green logo is rarely a differentiator these days.

In the produce example, the answer to driving sales wasn't in focusing the marketing message on the store's environmental credentials -- and instead on the singular message of local sourcing and freshness: By showcasing local farmers, shifting 40 percent  of sourcing to regional suppliers, and placing the product more prominently in the store, the supermarket drove sales growth in the high single digits -- in a category which had been largely flat. In this case, sustainable sourcing and reduced carbon footprint became a natural by-product -- not the core marketing message, as is often the marketer's temptation.

If you do go green, make sure the product benefit your consumer values most stays intact. Take women's skin care as an example. For much of the category's history, the core promise has been beautiful skin. A number of natural brands have chosen instead to focus their communication on a range of sustainable attributes, ranging from "organic" to "natural" to "handmade." These might motivate the "green" consumer (who, recall, we have a hard time defining, much less finding in numbers) but many women want results for their skin, first and foremost.

Peel back the onion some more on what women really want (and what they're willing to pay for), and it turns out while many appreciate the environmental benefits of sustainable cosmetics, most are not only unwilling to pay a premium for green -- they won't buy at all until convinced that the ultimate benefit associated with beautiful skin is intact. As a result, the burden of proof becomes job No. 1, and green attributes inevitably take the back seat. In surveying the customers of a leading beauty chain, we found that regardless of being well educated and caring for the environment, the women we spoke with were willing to pay only a minimum premium for green, were more willing to pay up for great skin results, and more willing yet to pay up for indulgence when it comes to cosmetics. Get the sequence wrong, and the road to profits is sure to be a long one.

The triple bottom line is no longer a new concept, but getting it right requires a delicate balance. The reality is most green products aren't new to the world. Their buyers and the buyers' needs haven't changed all that much. The key to selling them on green products today is getting to know their needs even more intimately than marketers are used to doing.

Martin is a principal at Marakon, a consultancy pioneering consumer-insight-based strategy development for some of the world’s best known companies.

Image by Martin Morzynski