I'm going to start an ad agency the niche market of which is marketing for niche ad agencies. It seems that there are as many niche agencies out there now as there are niches. And, like eBay, it seems that ad agencies have found the long tail. Smaller, more specialized firms are making compelling arguments for their existence—even competing with larger agencies for specialized project work.

But unlike the market for, say, Russian Carnivalesque Literature, the long tail of the "Green Marketing" niche seems to be getting thicker as America mainstreams into greener consumerism (some call it "prosumerism").

With such a dynamic and emerging marketplace, it's important to understand where the Green Market came from and how it will progress into the future. This series of articles will be taking a closer look at this swelling market by dissecting the factors that may contribute to its sustainability or fracture its foundation.

What we find may leave you confident of a smooth transition from fringe to mainstream—or questioning whether a sudden market burst and decline in receptivity to "greenness" is looming.

Let's begin by breaking down the current state of the marketplace.

Is It Really Not Easy Being Green?

There are no shortages of small markets available to smaller agencies that don't feel like competing for the local bank, insurance company, and restaurant business. One niche that has catapulted in the last three years is the Green Agency niche—those ad agencies that care about their clients' social and environmental standards. Or, maybe, they don't care, but realize that Green is a growing market. But let's be optimistic.

The market is large and growing—the Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) marketplace is now a $209 billion space. That's a lot of hemp. But of course it's not hemp. It's green building, renewable energy, socially responsible investing, alternative transportation, healthcare, natural, organics; nutritional products, dietary supplements, home and office products, tourism, and travel.

The optimistic take: Consumers care what they consume. The pessimistic take: Consumers care what it looks like they consume (can you say brand washing?). Either way, the market is huge. But the language is different, depending on your audience.

Once relegated to the fringe markets of "hippie" products and granola aisles, the Green Market has been pulled from the fringes into the mainstream by several factors:

  1. The mainstream press has picked up on "Green as Gold" stories. These stories comment on the economics of "going green" (market size, market affluence, cost-savings on building and operational performance, etc.)

  2. Major corporations have thrown money at huge ad campaigns promoting their Green-ness. Look at BP's $140 million campaign to support a $500 million solar division, and by extension re-brand the company.

  3. Al Gore, global warming and, by President Bush's own admission, America's addiction to oil have brought the issue to the masses.

All good things for the Green Agency. But like marketing to any subculture, it helps to understand the market: Why is it developing? What language works best? What are the previous trends? And, most critically, What's next?

Looking at the World Through Green-Colored Glasses

Some observations about marketing to the Green(ing) consumer:

  • Be authentic. The green consumer is willing to self-educate. They can and will sniff out Greenwashing. When they do, they will tell their friends. The mainstream may care less about Greenwashing, but they will also look to the trend-setting True Greens for product approval and authentication.

  • Back it up. Use numbers—simple, easy-to-digest numbers. Look at Timberland's new eco-nutrition label as a good example. It's simple, accurate, and creative.

  • The color "Green" is both a boon and a curse. No matter what Pantone mix you choose, anyone can use the color green and be associated with being Green. Make your message deeper than that; otherwise, you may get caught up in the Greenwash and end up in a sea of not-so-green companies.

  • "Green" is a politically charged word. Just acknowledge that fact when you sit down to write copy for the next ad.

  • The Green consumers of the new wave are not treehuggers. They are over-educated, SUV-driving, Whole Foods-shopping, expendable-income-having soccer moms... and they love thinking that they are green. Make sure your message isn't too green to drive them away (see No. 4 and No. 1).

  • Greenwashing will work for a while. But like any brand, it's a promise. Fail to fulfill the promise, and customers will leave in droves. 30 minutes or less, the real thing, my kids are safe at Disneyland, be like Mike... all of these are promises that deliver on some level. Green brands need to do the same, or die.

  • Watch your language. Like the "Latino agency," "the active and over 60 agency," or the "urban youth agency," you have to understand the language of the (sub)culture you are targeting. Green has a language all its own, and it's changing faster than you can say "ecomagination."

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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.