11 Steps to Mainstream Your Green Products

11 Steps to Mainstream Your Green Products

Politicians aren't the only ones saying one thing and doing another. Consumers are constantly flip-flopping, especially when it comes to their claims of living sustainably and buying green products. OgilvyEarth, the sustainability division of advertising agency Ogilvy Mather, collaborated on a project aimed at understanding the gap between consumers' intentions and actions in the US and China markets, the two largest consumer markets in the world. This project, Bridging the Green Gap [PDF] set out to understand why this gap exists and how to close it. Graceann Bennett and Freya Williams, who led the US project, presented the findings at the recent GreenBiz Forum.

The report, which includes expert interviews, ethnographic research, and quantitative data, sharpens the lens on the fuzzy area of "mainstream" green. "Middle Greens" consist of two categories, which together comprise 66 percent of the U.S. population. At 33 percent, "Upper Middle Greens" see the sustainability movement as more important than "Lower Middle Greens," who also represent 33 percent of the market. Upper Middle Greens have a strong belief in the existence of the problems, such as the impending water crisis and the link between extreme weather events and human behavior.

However, while they do what they can, Upper Middle Greens are not leading the way for others, like the "Super Greens" (at 16 percent of the US market) are doing. Further down the spectrum, the Lower Middle Greens see these problems as hype. Their purchasing behavior is based more on personal benefits.

As a whole, Middle Greens are followers. They are mainstream consumers who understand the importance of living sustainably, but are not necessarily willing or interested in going out of their way to be the change. Don't expect the Middle Greens to be easily converted to the Super Green lifestyle. They won't. The Super Green market has remained the same size at 16 percent for the past 30 years, with no marked sign of improvement.

To market to Middle Greens, "we have to go to them, they will not come to us," explained Graceann Bennett. Oftentimes they "take a bite of the green apple," then they feel guilty about their purchasing choices or lifestyle and start on a path of sustainability, albeit staying firmly in the middle lane.

Early efforts of green marketing labeled the consumer as special and green. This has proven to be the wrong strategy for the Middle Greens, as they like everyone else just want to be normal, not special or labeled as green. (Greenies are still widely regarded as an annoying fringe element -- either rich elitist snobs or crunchy granola types.)

In a few corners of the US, such San Francisco, green behavior is normalized. If you are not recycling or reducing fossil fuel, you are a social outcast, i.e. "not normal." Marketers can reach the mainstream consumer by normalizing the buying behavior that is the goal of a marketing campaign.

For the rest of the mainstreamers, it is far more effective to position a green product as better, modern, or optimized. An example is Method with its cool bottles and better performance, in addition to its "non-toxic" message. As OgilvyEarth's report explains, Super Greenies will still get the green message through reading labels on the bottle, ads in green magazines, trusted media outlets, social, apps such as Good Guide, and through retailers such as Whole Foods.

Often when a green behavior shift really takes hold, it happens by triggering a "preexisting condition" - an element of our character that represents a source of pleasure, validation or self-worth. One example is the "deal" found at the local thrift store that gives the buyer pleasure in her shopping prowess.

Cost, also known as the "sustainability tax," continues to be the number one barrier holding Americans back from purchasing green products. Moreover, 73 percent of Americans opt for known mainstream brands because they believe they will deliver better on performance. A good example is the popularity of Clorox Greenworks over Seventh Generation.

Curiously, green is also viewed as feminine. When asked if they thought if the green movement was masculine or feminine, 82 percent of respondents said feminine. Green is seen as the new pink. Mary MacDonald of EarthShare gets around this by appealing to the masculine attributes of green. "When guys come up to me and ask about my Prius," Mary told me, "I talk about how powerful the car is. That gets their attention."

Eco-related suspicion and confusion abound. Consumers don't trust claims, even in cases where companies are doing the right thing. Even with Green leader SC Johnson, too many claims really make a brand suspect or even liable, even where good intentions are met with skepticism, as covered in Joel Makower's blog post about the Sense and Sensibility survey. Steps to follow in order to mainstream your green products are as follows:

  1. Make it normal -- Make people feel like everyone is doing it.
  2. Make it personal -- No polar bears, use local examples that affect them.
  3. Create better defaults -- If green is the default, them people don't have to decide to be green.
  4. Eliminate the sustainability tax -- Eliminating the price barrier eliminates the notion that these products are not for normal people.
  5. Bribe shamelessly -- Reward good behavior.
  6. Punish wisely -- Shame, stigma and guilt are powerful motivators, unless used too much.
  7. Don't stop innovating -- Make better stuff.
  8. Lose the crunch -- Don't package in burlap!
  9. Turn eco-friendly into male ego-friendly -- incorporate gadgets, games, sports or other male oriented approaches.
  10. Make it tangible and easy to navigate -- Close the feedback loop, have transparency and a very good road map.
  11. Tap into hedonism over altruism -- Help consumers see the fun side of sustainable lifestyle.

The bottom line: make it easy (and normal) to be green by addressing social needs and getting back to marketing basics.

Shopping cart photo via Shutterstock.