What's Wrong with Green Marketing, and How to Fix It

What's Wrong with Green Marketing, and How to Fix It

Image CC licensed by Flickr user floeschie

Today's green marketing is not hooked into the zeitgeist. We are begging for relevance. Our lexicon is hopelessly dated while conferring an unattainable quality to clean technologies already in use. We've managed to create the sense that clean tech is the never-materializing Unicorn, stuck in a time machine that is constantly resetting itself for the late 70s.

This is a pity, because innovations in sustainability and clean tech are ready, reliable and increasing in efficiency. We are seeing a Modified Moore's Law at play as scale and generational improvements are putting downward pressure on cost. Yes, there is more room for price improvement and more to come from the labs. But these will build on existing innovations, burbling furiously beneath the market's surface, but sadly hidden from the general public.

And yet, no one is planting flags saying, "We're ready, reliable and able" with existing clean technologies or explaining where this is going. No meta arguments are being framed, the landscape is largely barren of brands. Market changing innovations are being conveyed as hobbies. Trust is utterly lacking. 

As a result, green products are not going mainstream. The whole notion of green signals a niche market -- only for a select audience. Like any well-used signifier it is loaded: Embedded with meanings that can't be ignored, limited in scope and so overused that it has lost traction. 

The Elephant in the Room

Environmentalism, and by extension, clean tech in the U.S., is deeply associated with political party. Nearly half of your audience opts-out based on perceived political bias. Ignoring the powerful political affiliation issue in marketing  green is like creating delicate luggage in a world of Samsonite gorillas. We are not in reality. We have to deal with this frontally and with humor. We have to cross and eliminate the political divide. We need to become Switzerland.

Green Could Be Funnier   

Most of the marketing in this space is ponderous, lacking in humility, humanity and humor. Who decided that marketing green made us exempt from the natural laws of marketing?  Who said we were special? We've been defying the physics of our trade and we've paid the price. We need to get back to what moves people. Guilt doesn't sell, but humor does. We need to sell green by poking fun at our silliest excesses, the stereotypes and ourselves.

Green Economics
Green cannot defy market economics. The green premium is just too high. Prices  signal that a green world is only for those who can afford it and reinforces a terrible narrative of elitism. "You're not welcome" is not a great way to start a conversation for revolutionary innovations trying to go mainstream. Price efficiencies have got to become an important part of this conversation or this is a conversation going nowhere.

The economic upside of clean tech has to become a major focus going forward. Sustainability markets have to be based on business metrics, not magical thinking. This isn't a cause. It's business.

A New Lexicon

So what do we do? We need a more inclusive, less niche vocabulary for the world we want to see. When I worked on the team that transformed IBM from a highly centralized to a democratized era of computing, we had no road map, no vocabulary. We were describing a world that did not yet exist, to an audience that had no need for what we were selling, and no idea what we were talking about -- at first. So we sold a vision of the future that we wanted to see, and explained how innovations -- both present and future -- were going to take us there. 

We have been trying to hang the world we want on a single word: green. We need a new lexicon. We need aggressive communications around the innovations, speed of discovery and benefits of clean tech and sustainability. We're well past the point where this is needed. As a single term, green has become shorthand for all things environmental and political. Like any overused and abused term, it has become a punch line before it's had the chance to become reality.

Innovation, Adoption Rates and the 'Horizon Line'

We need to express a larger vision. This very cool, amazing future is coming across as the prescription for a lifetime subjected to rough toilet tissue and bad lighting. We're offering a better future. So why does it sound so much like it's going to suck? We have innovations in hand that can get us a large part of the way towards the future we want. So why do we insist on making the problem sound utterly intractable? We need to start talking about this future as entirely plausible. 

We need to understand that technology uptake comes with customer understanding of not just today's innovations, but tomorrow's. This is a big topic, but simply put, adoption begins not when the light bulb goes off ("I understand this innovation now"), but when markets fully understand where that technology will lead. This is critical. It has to be expressed in terms of: innovations that are ready today, what will come out of the lab tomorrow, and what the future looks like -- showing a straight line to the horizon. We're not doing this and we have to.

Business Green Versus Consumer Green

We shouldn't confuse sustainable business practices with sustainable end-products. Sustainability in business today actually has a deep heritage in past business transformations. Getting to zero waste or a zero carbon footprint is a revolutionary achievement. Creating transformative change to become fully or even partially sustainable is more than green.  It's the equivalent of going from vacuum tubes to smart phones. This is not a "niche" achievement. It's big -- and it's market shaping.  It is the very definition of a defining core brand attribute. It says something about a company's ability to innovate, be competitive and show imagination.

Use The Force

Finally, in order to be disruptive you need to disarm the "other side." Therefore, we need to usurp the language that's most potent and currently an impediment: the language of business. When are we finally going to come out and say that waste is not conservative? Wasted inputs like water and energy are not good for business or shareholder value. Markets -- and by extension, business -- are supposed to be efficient. Well, prove it.

Innovation in new clean tech markets is an idea that can defy political assignation if its business value is elevated. We are at a confluence of decades of innovations in materials, energy, building and information technologies that, now fused, can create benefits to society that are orders of magnitude greater than any innovation alone. This is game changing. The potential market impact of this convergence isn't captured by the pseudo-altruistic bent of most green communications. 

We need to deliver this bigger story of innovation and the scale of the benefit to the economy it represents.

Green marketing -- as it's been practiced -- is over. To have a market commensurate with its potential impact, green needs a bigger story, a deeper lexicon, a more aggressive alignment with the zeitgeist and a clear pathway to the horizon line. Green needs to grow a sense of humor and assert a new political neutrality. Green needs to be expressed in all of its market changing glory. 

Ironic then, that green marketing has never been more needed. 

Image CC licensed by Flickr user floeschie.