Henry Ford’s marketing promise has moved on the colour wheel. Every company, product and service, from diapers through to life insurance, has become green.
Today’s marketing formula seems to take a bit of corporate social responsibility, a smattering of cause-related marketing, blend it all with some public relations and ice every advert, brochure and product like every day is St Patrick’s Day.
Hands up who is treating customers and clients as gullible, ignorant and profoundly stupid. Why else would anyone expect this sudden zeal for ‘green marketing’ to result in winning more customers?
The public certainly do care about the environment. A recent poll by the Australian National University revealed two in five people consider global warming the most serious threat facing the planet, with three in five believing drought and declining rainfall to be the greatest environmental risks.
These statistics present a persuasive platform for marketers – a platform requiring far more thought than most are considering.
Today’s consumer is well informed and therefore more cynical and critical than ever. Simple green washing does not address the concerns people have about the environment. Nor will they be convinced that the environmental credentials of individual products and services make a significant difference.
The actions of a brand, when credible in all aspects, win the support of consumers. Living up to this expectation is a considerable, if not insurmountable, challenge.
Promising that every facet and action of a company is green invites external scrutiny and courts disappointment, even ridicule. For every environmentally-friendly action a company takes, environmentalists, often harsh critics, will find other aspects of the company’s operations that have a detrimental impact on the ecosystem.
If the packaging is biodegradable, the distribution has a carbon footprint. If the delivery is offset, the product may not be from sustainable materials. Even if all that is taken care of, what about the eventual disposal. Can a company ever have control over that?
And then there is the scrutiny of individual employee behaviour. All things company may be green, yet its reputation will be tarnished if the CEO spends his weekends hunting endangered species from a safari Hummer.
With so many variables, it is simply too bold a claim for a company, product or service to call itself ‘green’. A much safer and more effective approach is to be responsible for a specific aspect of the environment.
Safer, in that management can focus attention on ensuring that its commitment is pursued in every operation. More effective, as consumers can easily identify with the clarity of the commitment and critics will be less tempted to expose other areas lacking best practice.
Responsibility is the burden of reliability and dependability, for whichever environmental role is chosen. Done with integrity, it will be rewarded with the public’s environmental respect.
‘Green marketing’ raises too many questions, distracting the purchase. As with all marketing, it’s better to underpromise and over-deliver.
Jörn Sanda is a business reputation consultant at public relations agency Hill & Knowlton.