Staying Ahead in Green Business: What Makes You Special?

Treehugger jpeg Jerry Stifelman wrote an interesting piece about how green products have emerged into a previously nonexistent market.

  • Because early green products were the first of their kind, they focused on general messaging (good for the planet) instead of creating strong brands based on differentiation.
  • Stifelman encourages green products/businesses to create a unique brand alongside the creation of the market, or risk being pushed out by the competition.

Posted Apr. 24, 2009
By Jerry Stifelman, The Change, Chapel Hill, NC (Source: Treehugger)

Selling Green Products vs Selling YOUR Green Products
Staying ahead picImage credits: Denbompa and MedicMedia

On the TV show, "Mad Men,"
ad man Don Draper saves Lucky Strike cigarette account by ignoring
research about cigarettes causing disease (he literally throws it in
the trash) and instead playing up the brand's "Toasted Tobacco" flavor.
But wait, what does this have to do with green branding?

In the development of any brand, there is always a tension between
selling the category (e.g., organic vegetables are better for the
planet) vs. selling against the category (e.g., our organic vegetables
taste better than other organic vegetables). This is especially
relevant in the green world because sustainability ends up generating
new market categories.

When Toyota launched the Prius,Scryve Corporate Social Responsibility Rating
it essentially created the good-for-the-planet automotive category.
This gave them the opportunity to focus on general messaging — rather
than focus on the specifics of the Prius' design, they instead focused
on the general idea of driving a car that was better for the earth. The
key points in their branding would have been true for all hybrids, but
at that time there weren't any other hybrids (yes, HondaScryve Corporate Social Responsibility Rating also had the Insight, but was investing very little in communications). Seventh Generation was able to do something similar for green cleaning products. And Aubrey was in this position with regard to the natural personal care category.

There's lots of advantages to positioning your brand to take broad
ownership of your category. It sets you up to gain customers that are
driven to the category by your competitors and media coverage. It
provides opportunity for big, dramatic messaging (i.e., you get to talk
more about saving the planet and less about horsepower and warantees).

There is a downside, however. Namely, it leaves you vulnerable to
competition, because it tends to make your brand less proprietary. Due
to its distinctive futuristic design and high market penetration, the
Prius continues to lead its category (this success also has something
to do with the utter lack of imagination on the part of their

Examples of companies that seem to be more challenged include Equal Exchange
and Aubrey personal care. Both companies are true pioneers in their
respective categories and both continue to lead in terms of quality and
integrity. Yet since both brands have done little to substantively set
their brands apart within their category, they are both highly
vulnerable to losing market share.

How to solve this? It's what I call
the-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy. If you're launching a new
green brand that is establishing a new category rather than joining a
mature one, develop a distinctive personality at the same time you're
educating people about their environmentally sensible options. The
electric scooter category is a good example in that it's relatively new
without an established brand leader, thus creating the opportunity for
a brand to educate consumers about the overall merits of electric
scootership. If a brand came out and established a quirky retro
personality or a sleek, minimalist design ethic or a gritty rock and
roll personality, then it would have something that continues to rise
above the surface as the category matures and populates.

What about brands that didn't do this when they started out? How can
they manage sustaining leadership while facing increasing competition.
The temptation is to throw money at the problem by hiring bigger,
slicker agencies. Yet usually this merely results in better design, as
opposed to genuine brand distinction. Instead, I suggest maximizing
your assets — which is the essence of branding, as opposed to mere

To go back to our previous examples, Equal Exchange, is not a
standard corporation, it's a worker-owned cooperative. Instead of
communicating like a corporation, they could communicate like a
cooperative. Their copy can be written in a more down-to-earth way
displaying the depth conviction unique to a company of "owners." They
can juxtapose photos of their employees at work alongside those of
farmers, emphasizing that both are working in cooperative structures.
They can let employees relate messages in their own words with their
own bylines. In doing so, they could convey that they live the
principles of Fair Trade more deeply than the competition. In doing so,
they would offer customers something deeper and more substantive to
support with their money.

Aubrey is another amazing company. They are still led by a single
visionary, Aubrey Hampton. All their products are mixed by hand. And
everything is shipped fresh, nothing is warehoused. Yet to learn these
facts, you have to prowl through their website, something few customers
will do. Ultimately, personal care products are an on-the-shelf
proposition. The typical customer isn't going to do research.

Yes, I've probably gone on too much about those specific examples.
But that's the idea. If it's YOUR company, you should already be aware
of your unique assets. So even if you're telling a big story of how
buying something like your product will help the earth, don't forget to
integrate the elements that make your company and your products
special. The world really is getting greener — which means competition
is coming, even if it's not there yet.

Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change – a brand creation and design agency that works with sustainable businesses and non-profits.

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