Ziba’s Eric Park on Green Design and Brand Identity

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Green design and green marketing go hand in hand, so why did it
take companies so long to make the connection?  In this SLM interview,
Eric Park of Ziba,
an internationally recognized design consultancy, takes us back to the
late 1990s and the beginning of the movement, and explains why
marketers’ current concerns over “green fatigue” miss the point
entirely.

Posted at Sustainable Life Media

SLM: Eric, what inspired you to start the sustainable practice at Ziba?

Eric: The
trigger for us, in terms of a single event, was the Natural Step
conference when it was hosted in Portland in April, 1999. That’s when
we understood how market forces were driving business leaders to take a
hard look at their brands and really question what they were doing from
a sustainability perspective. At that moment we realized that more of
our clients would start to see the implications of sustainability.

Our
first real client conversation on the topic was a dialog with a global
footwear and apparel brand that had committed to training their
employees in The Natural Step principles.  At that time, they were
working to integrate the Natural Step framework
into their corporate culture but had yet to define what it meant for
their brand. It was clear based on our interactions with our client
that as sustainability evolved into a more consumer relevant trend, our
work as designers would become more relevant to leadership brands.

SLM: Tell us a bit about your green design work for that particular client.

Eric:
The challenge for our client was to find new ways to drive
eco-efficiency throughout the manufacturing supply chain. At the same
time, they wanted Marketing to get on board to understand the
implications sustainable practices could have for consumers. Ziba
collaborated with them to shape an internal pitch, emphasizing some of
the market research and the insights that we had about the potential
for sustainability to create competitive advantage.

It was
clear even then that shifting market trends were making sustainability
issues more relevant to consumers. It boiled down to a simple framework
– people want high-performance products that also relate to their
identity and values. Our client, with its strong design culture, soon
realized that if they could design their shoes in a way that connects
to the culture of sports and an active lifestyle, they could also
design their shoes in a way that communicates consumers’ sense of
self-identity. The early research indicated that consumers’
self-identity increasingly included values such as buying products from
environmentally and socially responsible companies. Ziba developed a
visual analysis of the trend demonstrating the shift in consumers
desires from performance to identity to values, and that our client had
the opportunity to respond and connect to their consumers’ values and
desires, by developing more sustainable products. 

SLM:
It seems so obvious now that using a sustainable approach to product
design might translate into marketing opportunities for that product
down the road.

Eric: Above all else, you need to be
authentic about what your brand stands for. Changing consumer values
are really reshaping how we think about what we need and what we
desire. Brands are not static in time and space – they evolve along
with cultural trends – so it’s definitely worth identifying what the
connection is between your brand and your customer. That’s why there’s
so much buzz surrounding your Sustainable Brands conference – most
leadership brands are realizing that sustainability is gaining
relevance among mainstream consumers and they’re trying to figure out
how to connect to that without using niche words like "sustainability"
and "environment" and "green."

The work that we do at Ziba is
about innovation to deliver authentic and meaningful consumer
experience. This is the greatest current challenge for sustainability:
innovating consumer experience in a way that enables consumers to
achieve their aspirations to live better. That means being empathetic
to the reasons why they may still buy disposable diapers or bottled
water even though they know these activities aren’t as sustainable.
There just aren’t better options out there in terms of performance,
usability and convenience. The opportunity for design is to create new
products that let consumers have it all. We’re entering an era in which
it can’t be "either/or"; it’s really all about the "and."

SLM: We just posted a couple stories on "green fatigue" (here and here),
the trend by which consumers, increasingly wary of companies’ green
marketing claims, are supposedly going back to making their purchasing
decisions based on performance and price only. Are you seeing designers
begin to backpedal on promoting their products’ green attributes?

Eric: Actually,
I think talking about products in generic terms is part of the problem.
It’s more important to understand the emotional and self-actualizing
needs of the consumers you’re trying to reach. For example, there are
customers for whom "green" is about status; in that case green
attributes should be brought to the fore both in terms of product and
user experience. If they’re not, then you’re not delivering on the
consumers’ desire to show that they are making a difference. Consider
the Freitag messenger bag – it was a different-looking product and the
young urban hipsters that adopted it just loved it. The company did a
great job of communicating how they were repurposing recovered
materials to produce these designer bags.

The fact is, nearly
every product that you experience today is differentiating itself along
sustainability lines, even if you can’t see it. Think about eggs: They
look exactly the same as they did 30 years ago, but the egg carton
might talk about "cage free," "vegetarian fed," or "steroid free." The
sustainability trend has totally changed the way we produce eggs, even
though there’s been no change in their outward appearance. These
changes have been driven by consumer concerns for personal health, the
biggest driver of the organic food movement. There are a lot products
whose green attributes are not immediately obvious to the consumer but
absolutely influence how they are made and sold.

Hear Eric discuss his sustainable design work at Sustainable Brands ’08!

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