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To shine a spotlight on sustainability issues, NGOs and consumer groups often target the most respected and trusted brands in the world.

That's why Home Depot was targeted regarding sustainable harvested wood, Nike for child labor practices, McDonalds for Styrofoam clamshells and now obesity, and why Coke is similarly targeted regarding sugar and packaging.

What does this all mean for your business? Simply stated, if you don't manage your business with respect to environmental and social sustainability, your business will not be sustained!

But the converse is true, too: A strong commitment to environmental sustainability in product design and manufacture can yield significant opportunities to grow your business, to innovate, and to build brand equity. All you have to do is get the word out... right?

As with any other major business endeavor, that's easier said than done.

Many a responsible company has run into trouble with these very same sustainability-minded NGOs and consumer groups, due to poorly planned and crafted marketing messages.

The "Rules of Green Marketing"

Protect your company from these common pitfalls and start taking advantage of new opportunities by heeding my "Rules of Green Marketing":

  1. Know your customer. If you want to sell a greener product to consumers, you first need to make sure that the consumer is aware of and concerned about the issues that your product attempts to address. (Whirlpool learned the hard way that consumers wouldn't pay a premium for a CFC-free refrigerator—because consumers didn't know what CFCs were!).
  2. Empower consumers. Make sure that consumers feel, by themselves or in concert with all the other users of your product, that they can make a difference. This is called "empowerment," and it's the main reason consumers buy greener products.
  3. Be transparent. Consumers must believe in the legitimacy of your product and the specific claims you are making. Caution: There's a lot of skepticism out there that is fueled by the raft of spurious claims made in the "go-go" era of green marketing that occurred during the late 80s to early 90s—one brand of household cleaner claimed to have been "environmentally friendly since 1884"!
  4. Reassure the buyer. Consumers need to believe that your product performs the job it's supposed to perform—they won't forgo product quality in the name of the environment. (Besides, products that don't work will likely wind up in the trash bin, and that's not very kind to the environment.)
  5. Consider your pricing. If you're charging a premium for your product—and many environmentally preferable products cost more due to economies of scale and use of higher-quality ingredients—make sure that consumers can afford the premium and feel it's worth it. Many consumers, of course, cannot afford premiums for any type of product these days, much less greener ones, so keep this in mind as you develop your target audience and product specifications.

Now let's take a look at some eco-designs (improvements over existing products), and eco-innovations (new types of products) that do a great job of winning over green consumers while grabbing market share.

Tom's of Maine

The husband-and-wife team of Tom and Kate Chappell created this full line of personal care products about 25 years ago. Ten or so years later, the brand broke out of the "deep green" niche to achieve distribution in CVS, Duane Reade, and other mainstream drug outlets.

The company is now owned by Colgate-Palmolive and is just one of many "deep green" brands that are being purchased by mainstream marketers. Other examples are Estee Lauder's purchase of Aveda, Danone's partial purchase of Stonyfield Farm, and Unilever's acquisition of Ben and Jerry's.

The messages on the sides of the Tom's of Maine toothpaste packaging may be one reason why. Check out the letter from Tom and Kate stating their company's mission. Signing the letter lets customers know there really is a Tom, there really is a Kate—just like there really is a Ben and there really is a Jerry: i.e., two real live people "minding the store" and staking their personal reputations on the quality of their products.

On another panel is a list of all the ingredients in the toothpaste—all natural spearmint oil for instance, and next to each ingredient is the role each plays in the toothpaste. There's even a third column that lists from where each ingredient is sourced.

This is unprecedented in the history of consumer goods! Can you do this with your product's ingredients? How many of them may contain warning labels? (Crest and Colgate each do.) For Tom's, listing the ingredients, such as natural spearmint oil, helps get consumers over any price barriers at the point of sale. They are choosing a brand with natural ingredients and recognize that it must come with a price.

Toyota Prius

I know you've been hearing a lot these days about Toyota's Prius. For lots of good reasons, it's likely the most successful "green" product in the US.

It provides consumers with all they seek in a sedan and more—attractive styling, fuel efficiency, the ability to drive for an unlimited amount of miles only stopping for fill-ups (versus, for instance, having to stop for a 12-hour recharge if the engine were only electric), and because of the hybrid engine, a quiet ride, since the car doesn't idle at stoplights.

The car's dashboard comes with an unusual feature: a screen that lets the driver know which of the two engines is in use and how efficiently fuel is being used at any given moment; according to anecdotes, Prius owners try to beat their previous record each time they drive!

When the car was introduced, ads focused on superior performance evidenced by a quiet ride, and supplemental ads touted its environmental bona fides. With energy prices on the rise, the Prius is now being marketed for its superior fuel efficiency, and a PR machine fuels efforts to link the car to environmentally conscious celebrities and causes. Some owners, it is reported, even buy the car for what is being called "Conspicuous Conservation"—letting all know that they are environmentally astute.

Tide Coldwater

Tide Coldwater is a line extension of Tide that is helping it build brand equity and stay fresh in the marketplace.

A "Life Cycle Assessment" commissioned by Procter and Gamble found that 80%-85% of the energy used to wash clothes comes from heating the water. P&G calculated that US consumers could therefore save $63 per year by washing in cold water rather than warm. So, with the proviso that it could persuade consumers that coldwater washing was efficacious, P&G positioned the product as a way to save on energy bills.

First, marketing efforts reassured consumers of the product's efficacy. On a special Web site, consumers could calculate the amount of energy they could save yearly personally and in conjunction with all the others who took the "Tide Coldwater Challenge."

Advertising showed how long major US landmarks such as the Empire State Building could be lit with the energy that could be saved if all of the consumers in those cities switched to cold-water washing.

Finally, the Web site provided various energy saving tips and resources, starting with information about switching to Energy Star certified energy-saving compact fluorescent lighting, tips from respected environmental group the Alliance to Save Energy, and encouragements to "Consider buying a Different Kind of Car"—namely, the Prius.

This type of marketing no doubt reassured consumers of the product's performance. They were empowered by the ability to calculate their own savings and to aggregate that savings with those of others. By using the Internet versus traditional advertising-led messages, they were engaged in the message. By leveraging word-of-mouth via the Tide Coldwater Challenge and associating with notable third parties, any barriers of skepticism were overcome. And Tide Brand found a fresh new message that was in step with consumers' need to control rising energy prices.

Method Line of Household Cleaning, Laundry and Personal Care Products

The environmental movement is about doing things differently. Method is a brand that is trying to express this "differentness" in nearly every way possible, starting with how the product looks and smells.

The bottle for the dish soap looks like an upside down teardrop. It was specifically designed by well-known fashion designer Karim Rashid so consumers would feel comfortable leaving it right at the kitchen sink, helping the user project a status of sorts.

The product label sports a very understated lower case "m" in a circle, with "method" also in lowercase just beneath. No splashy lettering. No flashy starbursts like those that were designed to capture consumers' attention at mainstream store shelves. What attracts consumers to this product is the distinctiveness of the package shape and the unique coloring of the product inside.

This product may look expensive, but it actually sells at competitive prices at Target, Office Depot and Safeway!

Method doesn't advertise. It attracts consumers via strong price value and word-of-mouth that is generated in highly effective ways, starting with the uniqueness of the product itself. Visit the Web site and read how Method tells visitors what it stands for: A page each is devoted to the elements of the Method "mantra": Efficacy, Safety, Environment, Design (do your brands consider design?), and Fragrance. (In-home interviews I conducted for a client recently attested to the importance of light scent to this brand's purchasing decision.)

Do your brands have mantras—or simply a list of benefits, or possibly just a marketing and creative strategy?

Another thing you'll find at the Method Web site is a campaign called "I Fight Dirty." (Note the "anti" tone.) This campaign empowers users to not only fight against dirt but also dirty practices by industry. Thus, its captures the essence of what the brand is about from both functional as well as emotional standpoints. (Another breakthrough.)

It also sends a newsletter to consumers who sign up. Recent issues have proffered tips on how to compost Christmas trees, locate brands of reusable diapers, and save pristine beaches by fighting dumping in oceans of plastic laundry bottles.

The Web site talks about the places where Method has been spotted—like the "Green Festival" hosted by Coop America each year. And it even gives visitors the opportunity to buy merchandise, like T- shirts emblazoned with the method name. How many of your users would wear clothing with your brand's name on it? How many of you would even think to offer it?

Putting the "Rules" to Work for Your Business

To start capitalizing on the many market opportunities represented by sustainability, consider the following:

  1. Think and act holistically. It is no longer enough to focus on functional benefits alone.

    ASK: What are we making (product or service? Green or not?) How are we making it? Who are we working with?
  2. Take advantage of the opportunities that green marketing represents to engage consumers on an emotional level and thus, build brand equity.

    ASK: how can we make our passion and vision relevant and engaging—and our consumers into advocates? How can we empower consumers to make a difference by providing them with education, infrastructure, events, and experiences?
  3. The way you communicate will be critical to success (and will help you avoid "greenwashing").

    ASK: How to ensure that our approach is viewed as authentic? Transparent? Are all stakeholders aware of our intentions and progress? Is our vision embedded in the fabric of our company?
  4. Eco-innovation represents new ways to grow top line sales.

    ASK: How can we inspire consumers? What technology and partners do we need to gain access to?
  5. Strive for an ideal goal of "zero" environmental impact. Strive to eco-innovate rather than simply eco-design.

    ASK: What would it take to achieve zero environmental impact and still meet our consumers' needs? Can we make consumers more "responsible"? It's one thing to design better products and technologies. But, at some point, industry's efforts will go only so far. Achieving "zero" environmental impact will come about only if changes can be made in consumer behavior—thus the genius of Toyota's dashboard, and Web sites that engage consumers in more responsible forms of behavior.

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Jacquelyn A. Ottman is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., advisers to industry on green marketing and eco-innovation. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation. Contact her via (