Green Marketing Doesn’t Work

Futurelab_logo_jpegRoger Dooley discusses how appealing to a consumer’s self-interest is so much more powerful than appealing a consumer’s sense of the general good.  Dooley goes on to offer some solutions for Green Marketers including making sure the consumer knows that the quality of the "green" product is as good or better than the alternative.

Posted Sept. 6, 2008
By Roger Dooley, FutureLab

Marketing eco-friendly products isn’t as easy as it might seem, particularly if the products involve some kind of sacrifice or behavioral change on
the part of the consumer. Take a look at one of the supposed
eco-villains, the auto industry. While one can criticize the big US
auto firms (not to mention Toyota and Nissan) for continuing to push
big trucks and SUVs to consumers who didn’t “need” them, the fact is
that all of these firms were supplying what the consumer wanted.

Yes, everyone knew that econobox cars used less
fuel, emitted fewer greenhouse gases, and so on. Everyone was happy
that automakers were introducing fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. But
when individual buyers visited their local dealership, by and large
societal concerns went out the window and people bought what worked best for them individually.
For many buyers, massive SUVs and powerful pickups were the kind of
statement they wanted to make, even if they never drove off-road and
did little hauling.   

What finally got consumers interested in vehicles that promised miserly gas consumption?  Pure self-interest.
When gas prices surged to $3, and then $4, per gallon, and filling up a
big tank approached the $100 mark, suddenly many consumers shifted
gears and tried to dump their gas guzzlers. (One could argue that all
aspects of this behavior had little to do with rational decision
making. The consumer first purchased a vehicle with capabilities he
would never use, and then in selling it took a loss of many thousands
of dollars to save, perhaps, $100 month.) The key point, though, is
that the individual purchases had little to do with the greater good of society and everything to do with individual preferences.

Towels Aren’t Trivial

An even more persuasive data point is described by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldsten, and Steve Martin in Yes!
The book spends its initial chapters discussing a series of experiments
testing how frequently hotel guests would let their towels be
“recycled,” i.e., folded and put back on the towel bar vs. being
replaced by freshly laundered towels. One would think that this is a
small sacrifice to make for anyone with the most remote concern about
the environment – is it likely that one could even tell whether the
towel was new by the time one returned to the hotel room at the end of
the day? In fact, though, mosts guests don’t recycle their linens. (I
wonder, too, how many inadvertently choose the recycling option by
forgetting to throw their used towels on the floor.) In the first part
of the study, a mere 35% of hotel guests allowed their towels to be
reused when urged to do so with a typical “preserve our planet”
message. (For more on this study, see A room with a viewpoint: conservation messages and motivation.)

To me, that’s a good indicator that appealing to people’s concern for the environment isn’t a winning strategy,  at least by itself.
Nearly two thirds of the hotel guests in Cialdini’s study failed to
participate in the towel reuse program, despite the fact that doing so
would have been a trivial inconvenience. Considering that few people
have the kind of emotional involvement with hotel towels that they do
with their personal vehicles, is it any wonder that for years people
continued to buy big SUVs, powerful trucks, and other high-status
vehicles in preference to economical compacts?

What’s a Green Marketer to Do?

clear that green appeal isn’t enough to get consumers to do something
they don’t want to. So, how can green marketers succeed in a
competitive marketplace?

Performance Validation.
One key, I think, is to offer consumers reassurance that they are
getting at least as good a product as they would with a non-green
alternative. A few years ago, I remember avoiding a “green”
paint-stripping product that promised it had “no dangerous chemicals.”
Why? At some level, I was convinced that a paint-stripper loaded with
dangerous, smelly ingredients and a page full of safety cautions was
likely to be faster and more effective than some wimpy green
alternative. What the manufacturer of the green product should have
done was label their package with some test data showing that it was
equally (or more) effective than the traditional product. That bit of
reassurance might have been enough to sway me to choose a product that
had fewer potential hazards.

Social Reinforcement.
Cialdini was able to boost participation in the towel recycling program
by 26% by the simple step of rewording the card to suggest that the
majority of hotel guests reused their towels. Instead of appealing to
their guests concern for the environment, the hotel suggested that the
social norm was to participate. Interestingly, a further tweak was
tested: the cards were again reworded, this time suggesting that the
majority of people who stayed in that particular room
had reused their towels. By making the information seem even more
socially relevant and establishing a closer tie with the guest,
participation was bumped by 33%.

Indeed, I’d guess that many of
the early Prius buyers were motivated by social concerns. Despite the
initially poor economics of the hybrid and its questionable
cradle-to-grave environmental impact, some of these buyers wanted to be
seen as doing the right thing for the environment or even to help set
the social norm for others. In my opinion, many of the early Prius
buyers were influenced every bit as much by social factors as buyers of
ultra-costly luxury sedans and sexy red convertibles.

While perhaps not a primary effect, a product’s green appeal may be
strengthened by an endorsement from a credible third party. Clorox, a
name that strikes me as synonymous with harsh chemicals, has seen
strong adoption of its GreenWorks line of products following a somewhat
controversial endorsement of the line by the Sierra Club. (See Clorox’s Battle to go Green .)
The appeal of the GreenWorks line may have been enhanced by testing
which showed the products to be at least as effective as the
traditional alternatives.

Reasonable Expectations.
As evidenced by the towel-tossing hotel guests and Clorox’s naming a 5%
share of their market as a laudable goal, green marketing stil has to
be considered a niche approach. Still, if a green product offers
performance advantages, it has a much better chance of success. A good
example of this is the Prius. In its early years, sales were modest.
When gas surged past $4, though, interest in the Prius soared not
because of heightened concern for the environment but because buyers
saw the vehicle’s cost premium as justified by their anticipated fuel

In short, don’t count on a “green” product to sell
itself in today’s market. For the majority of consumers (at least in
the U.S.), concern for the environment is trumped by self-interest. (It
would be interesting to do some brain-scan neuromarketing studies to
further evaluate the potency of the green message.) If you want it to
move beyond niche status, be sure your product has got something beyond
its green heritage going for it.

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