Marketing – When green claims backfire

Ethical_corporation_jpegOrginally posted Jan. 7, 2008
Ethical Corporation

Stretching a product’s green merits turns consumers off, says Mallen Baker

At an event for marketing directors a while ago, I heard one executive
comment that in his business the marketers referred to the CSR team as
the “sales prevention team”. Ouch.

The observation was offered up with some apology, but the key message
was that the marketers were “can do” types, who needed to see
opportunities and ways to sell. All they heard from their corporate
social responsibility colleagues was unattractive jargon and a list of
things not to do.

They have a point. Corporate social responsibility teams need to learn better to communicate internally.

But
we are now seeing evidence that the marketers need to understand that
some of the “don’ts” are just as important as the “dos”. This is best
seen in upheld complaints over false green claims in advertising.

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority is compiling a nice list. Shell, which said “we use our waste CO2
to grow flowers”, was in breach of the advertising code because the
wording could be seen to imply that all the company’s waste CO2 was so used, not just 0.33 per cent of it.

Scottish
& Southern Energy was pulled up for claiming that its “power2”
scheme used tree planting to “balance out” consumers’ emissions – a
claim that the ASA found could not be substantiated on current
understanding of what level of CO2 is absorbed over the lifetime of a tree.

Several
car companies have been at the receiving end for suggesting that their
vehicles are low emission, when what the footnotes on the ads admit is
that they are lower emissions than other vehicles in their class, which
is one of the more high impact polluting classes. Lexus in particular
was rapped for using the claim “Low Emissions, Zero Guilt” for the
implication that the car had minimal environmental impact. It all
depends where you think your guilt threshold is, perhaps.

Boeing
was pulled up for giving carbon footprint claims per passenger for its
new planes based on 100 per cent occupancy rates, whereas the industry
standard is to use just under 80 per cent occupancy as a benchmark.

What
has been achieved by all this “sell, sell, sell” can-do marketing
activity? Anyone who observed the first wave of green claims in the
late 1980s and early 1990s will know the pattern only too well.

Cynical public

According to a recent survey, 80 per cent
of Britons now think that companies simply pretend to be ethical in
order to sell more products. Widespread cynicism over all the claims
has set in, and is hardening with every ill-judged poster or TV ad.
Nobody can see an ad with flower petals floating from the exhaust of a
motor car and be anything other than cynical.

Between January
and September 2007, the ASA received 449 complaints arising from 321
advertisements. As a result, 19 campaigns were banned – double the
number of the previous year.

The advertisers need to understand
that they are not just pushing products. Every advert is also a
reinforcement of the company’s brand. And the one thing that no brand
wants to lose is the trust of its customers. Trust is key. This means
that, yes, alongside all the fabulous opportunities to understand
customers better, to build rapport based on shared values, and to focus
on new products for a new society, there are some things you should
just plain not do.

In terms of green claims, the key sins are
ones that cannot be backed up by proof, vague descriptions such as
“environmentally friendly”, irrelevant claims (pointing out that the
product does not contain a certain substance, when such products have
never contained that substance anyway) and downright lies. The latter
is the rarest of the sins, it is worth noting.

The annoying
thing is that many of these companies are genuinely committed to real
progress. Their business leaders understand that big challenges are
demanded of them by climate change. Their corporate social
responsibility teams are working within the business to identify
significant targets. Their product development teams are focusing on
innovation to put them ahead.

And the marketers who are
undermining trust in their own companies are neither evil nor stupid.
Where they sit, when there is a feature or a benefit of the product
that the customer cares about, they want to promote it. But in being so
ready to dismiss the corporate social responsibility advice, they have
missed the very different expectations upon them once those claims go
into the social or environmental sphere. They think it is just a bunch
of bureaucrats being politically correct. They need to learn, and learn
fast.

Mallen Baker is a director of Business in the Community.
[email protected]
www.mallenbaker.net

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