By Suzanne Shelton, CEO, Shelton Group
When my agency launched its business focus on energy conservation and green product marketing five years ago, there existed a conservative number of consumer product companies positioning themselves in a credible way to the national mass market as environmentally “with it.”
By today’s more rigorous standards for truth in advertising on the green front, not much has changed, unfortunately. And of course, the key word to focus on here is “credible.”
As is well-documented, companies shouting “green is me” from their rooftops are a dime a dozen these days. But as with all bandwagons piled high to excess capacity, the view from the roadside isn’t pretty. Consumers are sick and tired of “green” being assigned to every trivial product attribute that is—at best—a third cousin twice removed from a valid environmental claim.
In counseling my clients on green messages that work, there are several key hurdles that nearly every company has to navigate:
The company’s own operational and product-feature credibility that achieves a “green to the core” standard (or pretty close to it) in the minds of the media, consumers, environmental experts and other key stakeholders—a growing number of whom can easily discern environmental green from dollar-sign green a mile away
A sophisticated enough understanding of the rapidly evolving consumer mindset today relative to green and energy-efficient marketing—and the fact that the messages consumers think are acceptable now may not be so hot in the next six to 12 months
The fact that consumers aren’t necessarily as educated about the whole green thing as they’ve been portrayed to be by the media and whether a company is willing to take on a sizable education task to bring consumer awareness where it needs to be in order to achieve equilibrium between consumer expectations and the company’s product deliverables
Indeed, we’re looking at a far more complex challenge than simply wrapping a company in a green blanket and passing it off to the public as pretty, warm, fuzzy and worth going to probable added expense and extra effort to choose among the marketplace of more familiar, tried-and-true non-green alternatives.
Contributing to the complexity, there’s an even darker cloud: Some observers might say the environmental-message marketplace is itself irretrievably polluted, due to the volume of unmerited claims going on out there. With the volume of green overload inundating the American marketplace, we may be headed for a total consumer shut-down.
A growing range of consumer segments are not wanting to hear it, see it or smell it if it smacks of green—and my company’s “Energy Pulse” national consumer studies and focus groups directly support this feedback. Collectively speaking, sustainability marketing has a big hole to dig its way out of on the believability scale if it’s ever going to motivate consumers toward discernible changes in decision-making and behaviors.
So what’s a company’s green campaign to do? Enter the role of the public relations profession to tackle what is, admittedly, a big challenge.
Public relations professionals’ stock in trade is the process of earning credibility honestly and ethically among many competing demands, intentions and points of view. The eco-marketing movement represents one of the most significant challenges in this decade that demands the skill sets of public relations professionals to help separate the wheat from the chaff and to guide and persuade the American public toward better consumer decision-making, with effects that will be felt decades and centuries from now in every aspect of life.
Feel like a tall order? It is. But the public relations profession needs to rise to this occasion, even if it means derailing green campaigns already underway by an employer or client—if, in fact, the campaign’s bill of green goods is clearly contributing to the problem under discussion.
Here are some fundamental first steps that might be undertaken:
Critically examine the credibility of your company’s or client’s green messages, and settle for no substitute for original survey and/or focus group research to support your conclusions. Be very careful about your survey methodology and how questions are being asked in order to extract the most meaningful, objective data. You may be shocked that the very messages you thought would attract your customer base in droves are having the opposite effect—or, more commonly, are just missing the mark for other reasons that were never imagined—and with far-reaching ramifications to your corporate brand, reputation and budget resources.
Bring other organizational departments and senior management leaders on board with you during a critical analysis of the company’s green campaign. Engage them in their own education process of the complexities and issues involved, especially if they are disconnected from the green-washing phenomenon and why it poses a major threat to the company’s overarching credibility.
Don’t shy away from playing devil’s advocate and outright demanding, “We can’t say that!” whenever a green claim is spouted in a brainstorming meeting as a great thing to promote to your customer base—when, in fact, it doesn’t hold water with the company’s ability to deliver it. Public relations professionals need to offer the strongest backbone of resistance to bogus green statements, and by far, they are the most well-equipped to offer that push-back when armed with survey or focus group data that speaks to the impact of a credibility backlash and all that such an outcome entails.
Coming from the standpoint as a leader of an advertising agency, I’m committed to my company staying firmly entrenched in the energy conservation and green marketing sector. In my view, the sustainability movement is only just now dawning with mainstream America, and it’s an exciting place to work. Beyond excitement, though, the real rewards will come from communications professionals from all areas of expertise who help their companies and clients make informed, sophisticated decisions about how they communicate authentic messages to the world.
Suzanne Shelton has led Knoxville, Tennessee-based Shelton Group for more than 17 years. An expert in consumer marketing for green and energy-efficient products and energy conservation, her fourth annual Energy Pulse study on consumer residential energy use will be released in October, and her first Eco Pulse study on consumers and green affinity is set for release in June. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.