Green Marketing: A Two-Fold Lesson in Perception and Reality

Greenbiz.com Suzanne Shelton, founder of the firm that released the Eco Pulse study, shared an insight that came out of a recent mailing meant to inform recipients how mainstream consumers feel about green.  They discovered that often perception is just as important as reality when talking to people.  A failure to appear authentic can completely discredit any green initiative.

Posted July 13, 2009

By Suzanne Shelton, GreenBiz

It's going to take me sharing a bit of background to get across the
point of this blog entry, but hang in there. The end result is some
critical thinking about how to balance creating high-impact
marketing/advertising with doing the right thing for the planet.

My firm sent a mailer out recently announcing the release of our Eco Pulse study.
The piece features a person's face with a flap that allows the head to
pop open and reveal charts, graphs, images, words, etc. The point is
that our study reveals what mainstream consumers are thinking about the
green movement. It's intended to be attention getting, so we mailed it
in a clear envelope that would allow the recipient to see the imagery
inside. We went to great pains to create this piece in the most
environmentally friendly way available today. Here are the specs:

• The paper is made from 100 percent recycled content
that's 50 percent post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free and
certified Ancient Forest Friendly from a company that is Green Seal certified and uses renewable energy to power their plant.
• The inks used are vegetable based.
• The envelopes are made from a biodegradable poly material that is
recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. In fact, they're certified
compostable by the ASTM D6400 and DIN EN 13432 standards.

We received an email from a recipient of one of the mailers calling into question whether or not we were "walking our talk."

The issue was two-fold: When the mailer was opened there was a slight
odor, which gave this person a message that there was some chemical
content/off-gassing. Turns out our printer put the pieces in the
envelopes too fast and the coating, which was environmentally friendly,
hadn't dried completely, trapping a slight odor inside the envelopes.
Perhaps worse than that, though, was that the envelope was plastic. And
despite a little card we included with the mailer touting the
sustainability of the piece, to this person plastic = bad.

Much like the conundrum of the paper industry I explored in a recent blog post,
I think we may have reached a universal truth here about green
marketing: Plastic does = bad in the minds of many consumers who are
trying to go greener.

Though the vast majority of consumers prioritize their convenience and
their comfort over the environment (and thus might have picked up
plastic cups and environmentally unfriendly trash bags to use during
their Fourth of July celebrations), 26 percent will prioritize the environment first.
If that's the desired target of any marketer, no matter how much
thought and goodness has been put into a plastic product or marketing
piece, that product/message may be instantly discounted simply because
it is plastic.

Trying to be green is complicated and confusing for most consumers.
Frankly, it's sometimes not very clear for those of us entirely
immersed in the industry and trying to educate consumers. So most
people have wrapped their brains around the issue by creating simple
truths they can believe in, as in recycling = green and plastic = bad.

We gained some insight here that all marketers will do well to heed.
Make your message attention getting, but keep in mind that perception
is reality. And no matter how environmentally friendly a piece/product
actually is the perception of about a quarter of the population is: If
it smells bad it is bad, and if it's plastic it's even worse.

Suzanne C. Shelton is founder, president and CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency focused exclusively on motivating mainstream consumers to make sustainable choices.  

No Responses to “Green Marketing: A Two-Fold Lesson in Perception and Reality”

  1. To me, you’re missing the point on this one. If I had received such a mailing, I would not be getting picky about whatever specific materials you used for the mailing. . . I would get irritated that a supposedly environmentally friendly company is using physical mailings at all. You should be leading the trend of a paperless (mailingless) society, not perpetuating it. The materials, no matter how “sustainable” are still being used for a reason that to me is not sound. Plus, the carbon impact of mailing all of those envelopes was quite high I’m sure, especially when you could emailed all of those people.
    So, I hope you can see the bigger picture and stop those mailings altogether instead of fretting about which material to use for those mailings.

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