Has Earth Day marketing jumped the shark?

Has Earth Day marketing jumped the shark?

[Editor's note: Earth Day approaches. We recommend getting into the spirit by reading more pre-April 22 coverage from GreenBiz. Check out Executive Editor Joel Makower's annual survey of a crop of consumer polls in "Earth Day and the Polling of America 2012."]

As recently as a few years ago, campaigns and initiatives tied to Earth Day were worth a large chunk of any company’s marketing budget. As more and more companies got into the game, however, consumers came to expect everyone to do at least something for Earth Day, and now it may have officially jumped the shark as far as corporate marketing and public relations go.

Albe Zakes, global vice president of media relations for TerraCycle, which works with big corporations to run recycling programs, says he now dissuades customers from launching major initiatives on or around Earth Day.

“With everyone and their mother doing some kind of quasi-green messaging around Earth Day, you risk a truly environmentally responsible promotion, product or service getting lumped into consumer's green fatigue and being consider green washing,” he says. “Moreover, green media -- and mainstream media for that matter -- is inundated with so many ‘green’ pitches that truly noteworthy stories get overlooked. Better to wait a month or two when the masses are pitching product reviews for Mother's Day and Father's Day and your new recycling drive or solar installation will get more notice.”

The country’s largest PR and marketing firms seem to agree. Susan McPherson, senior vice president and global director of marketing for cause marketing giant Fenton, says she no longer finds Earth Day promotions of value to clients. Eddie Fernandez, vice president at OgilvyEarth, the sustainability arm of international PR, marketing and advertising powerhouse Ogilvy, agrees that the value of Earth Day promotions has diminished in recent years.

“Up until four or five years ago, Earth Day made sense as a relevant and timely opportunity to raise awareness of sustainability news and initiatives,” Fernandez says. “But in the last few years it has become so overcrowded that it’s harder to place media stories as reporters are being bombarded with a ‘green’ story from every company under the sun. Visibility around major initiatives and campaigns companies may want to announce is not getting the same [return on investment], and the allure of Earth Day has caused some companies to greenwash, further devaluing it for other companies.”

So what’s a company with a genuinely cool green initiative to do? First, consider tying it to another, less-crowded environmental day, such as World Water Day, World Forrester Day, America Recycles Day or Coastal Cleanup Day. This March, for example, rather than focusing on an Earth Day initiative, Levi Strauss & Co. partnered with Water.org for a World Water Day initiative that helped to raise awareness about water issues and challenge consumers globally to change their water use habits. Not only does this tie directly into ongoing work on water issues at Levi’s, it also enabled the company to beat the Earth Day rush, something Zakes says he now pushes TerraCycle customers to do as well.

“We try to beat everyone to the punch by making big announcements in mid-March,” Zakes says. “This way media and consumers aren't worm out on the ‘green’ messaging. Two good dates are March 21, World Forester Day, and March 22, World Water Day.”

Still, Earth Day isn’t a total loss for companies just yet. Fernandez says there is still value in what Earth Day represents; it just may not make sense to put too much effort into launching news or eco-campaigns around it. Instead, companies might want to leverage Earth Day for internal communications.

“Earth Day can be a great opportunity to launch internal communications efforts around sustainability for employees and internal stakeholders,” he says. “Oftentimes this group is overlooked in sustainability communications, but as brand ambassadors they are a great audience to share news with. Companies can then launch an external communications effort later on, after the Earth Day dust has settled, and likely have more success in a less cluttered media environment.”

Fernandez says there’s still one piece of eco news that does attract broader attention on Earth Day: research. “Research is a hot commodity for media to weave into their Earth Day stories,” he says. “If companies are conducting sustainability research with broad appeal, they could still earn great media attention.”

Photo of jumping the shark by Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt via Shutterstock.