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The Green Market Niche, Part 2: Who Killed the Electric Car (or How to Be a Good Greenwasher)

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Some fringe markets develop into not so fringe markets. Very few hit the big time and go mainstream. It's the same odds for Hollywood starlets. Chances are the fringe will stay right where it is—on the outskirts of popularity. And, for that matter, once given the chance at greatness even fewer will come back from their own "Come on Eileen"—just ask Dexy.

The fringe-to-great path is rare and, for that reason, worthy of review. Reflecting on past green products that were moving toward mainstream but failed... illustrates some of the challenges of legitimacy that innovation can face. On the other hand, monitoring those who have been notoriously self-serving and successful reveals marketing efforts to exemplify emotion, evade rationalization and drive profits.

Sony Pictures depicts an uphill battle, once lost, in "Who Killed the Electric Car," postulating that perhaps it was the oil industry. Or Republicans. Or maybe even a coalition of the five giant auto manufacturers who plotted, planned, and are responsible for the plug-in car's demise...

Despite Ed Bagley Jr.'s pleas, the electric car did in fact die. But if sales figures for Prius and other hybrids are to be believed, the second cousin to the electric car may be on the rebound. Just look at the numbers that show by March of 2007 there were already 20,526 hybrids sold. An impressive number that is greater than 2002's total annual sales.

But will the hybrid car die a death like its second cousin? Maybe—if Madison Avenue has anything to say about it.


Greenwashing may leave soap scum residue

For a long time, the green market was a fringe place, marketing compost toilets to hippies who washed with rocks (admit it, it started there). They loved the premise of the electric car and they did the math to realize the practical benefits.

But now, after a few epidemics related to health and obesity, fuel costs and addiction, mass marketing of climate change, and corporate transparency, the green fringe has moved to center-square quicker than most fringe markets. Important to note: not "quicker" in overall duration, but in haste.

Some of this growth opportunity is, no doubt, thanks to "greenwashing"—which helped catapult the marketplace to its current size. It also happens to be exactly what will kill the next "electric car."

With the mainstreaming of green products, there is also an increase in attempts by conventional companies to camouflage themselves into something they are not—exclusively to increase their own product demand and revenue. Case in point: G.E.'s ecomagination campaign is a glorious blur of positive images, pretty colors, and sexy models covered in dusty coal.

What this campaign is void of is facts. And, since G.E. understands that there can be no fact without interpretation, it leaves the facts out altogether. By not being allowed us an opportunity to interpret, we respond emotionally.

Don't be fooled, this is not by chance. G.E. is savvy enough to know that to actually interpret ecomagination would require the involvement of cerebral engagement with things G.E. might not want us to encounter with its new "green" brand.

The latest in a series of G.E. "clean coal" ads claim "harnessing the power of coal is something everybody can get behind." Apparently the folks in the ads chasing after the coal in tube socks have never seen mountaintop removal.

The old fringe hippies would never buy it. They would research, do the math, and draw their own conclusions based on facts. Today's loyal green consumer will also question the messaging and review the contradicting data.

But G.E. is betting that the mainstream consumer will do neither, and instead simply absorb and accept the emotion of the campaign... And if G.E. holds its breath, it might be right.

What's the lesson?

  • If you want to attract a loyal green consumer, use concrete data to support your claims. Give them facts and invite them to interpret.

  • If you want to attract mainstream consumers, use brand and emotion, the stuff we were taught back in Marketing Psych.101... and cross your fingers they don't start to actually care about legitimacy.

 

It's called Whole Foods Hummer Syndrome... it afflicts those consumers who want to be associated with the brand of being green and healthy, but not at the expense of any real sacrifice. The brand of being green is as powerful as the brand of being cool—that stuff that sells booze, cigarettes, muscle cars, and Prada.

Greenwashers know this. They know that the emotion of popularity—or the fear of rejection—sells. So they manufacture and market popularity. If it's manufactured fast enough, it can't be real—there's no time for authenticity in the whip of marketing.

If advertisers decide that lime is no longer the flavor of the month—when the news cycle gets stale and Gore grows tired—so goes the green buzz. The train leaves the station. The fear is then, of course, that when the only purchase pattern is based on emotion and not intellect—it is simply a fad that will revert back to the fringe.

For the green marketer, we are left asking: Could the speedy mass production of green branding deplete the niche's ability to resonate with a larger marketplace and carve an enduring place in conventional consumers' purchase patterns?

Let's face it, markets grow and pop faster than ever now. Could the answer be in slowing growth to ensure a more authentic movement, as opposed to a manufactured one? Maybe Ed Begley Jr. knows.

Next in the series: Green Bubbles Pop Too.


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John Rooks is is president and founder of The SOAP Group (www.thesoapgroup.com). SOAP (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) is a consultant for Fortune 500 companies on issues of environmental and sustainability messaging. John can be reached at jrooks@thesoapgroup.com and at 207.772.0066, ext. 105.

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