A Clockwork Green

Adweek logo Michael Mercier of Adweek discusses how green has lost meaning and led to confusion as every brand and business introduces their own green product or service.  Mercier suggests defining differentiating terms that are consistent within the "green" umbrella.

Posted Aug. 17, 2009

By Michael Mercier, AdWeek

From trash bags to face cream, every brand right now is pitching a
green product. What in the world does it mean anymore to say your
brand is green? For too many consumers, unfortunately, not much.
Stretched by brand managers over recent years to cover more and
more ground, green has become an umbrella term for what is today a
grab bag (albeit a reusable canvas one) of attributes, attitudes,
values and behaviors. A colleague of mine recently told me he
considers green to be shorthand for "behaving ethically." But,
remember when green just had to do with saving the planet?

Sure you do. It wasn't too long ago that green enjoyed a reasonably
narrow meaning. You or your brand were green if you or it embodied
a substantive benefit to the earth's environment. The thinking, to
quote the Police, is when the world is running down, you make the
best of what's still around. Originally, green helped people to do
that: slow down the wear, maximize the resources. Was a brand's
package recyclable? Were its contents biodegradable? Great-it was

The evolution that got us to where we are now was probably
inevitable. Like ivy, green has grown out of its original
container. It has morphed both in terms of its applications (there
are not only green products, but also green companies and green
practices) and in the way its definition is applied. So, a consumer
isn't just green if she puts recycled paper in the tray of her
energy-efficient printer, but also if her shopping contributes to
the sustainability of social and economic systems. If she supports
local farmers by buying her vegetables at the local green market,
for example, or if she looks for Fair Trade Certified products that
guarantee third-world producers a high market price for their raw
goods — that's green, too.

In a branding context, this hyper-broadening of what had been a
simple term has begun to cause serious confusion — the last thing
any successful marketing campaign needs. Consider this: Right now,
if a company claims that its product is green, what exactly is it
telling the consumer about that product? Your guess is as good as

Is it that the product's packaging is made from recycled material?
Does it mean that the company has corporate programs that give back
to its local community? Or might it mean only that the company uses
energy-efficient computers at headquarters?

Or maybe it's that the materials comprising the product are
nontoxic. Or that by using the product, the consumer will use less
energy. Maybe it could be some unique combination of these things
— or a whole host of other things.

So here we are, clamoring to claim that our products are green at
just the moment when the term green has become meaningless.

What's a brand to do? I believe it's time for the marketing
community to develop an entirely new green nomenclature — one that
uses the broad "green" label, but combines it with other key terms
that would precisely connote the ways a product (or its packaging
or the manufacturer) is green.

For example, a label such as "Green Community Contributor" would
clearly tell consumers that a brand has programs that give back. If
a shopper were to encounter a label that read "Green Nonpolluting
Packaging," he'd be clear that the doodad he was about to buy would
not pollute the ground water table if it happened to fall out the

The new nomenclature should also provide a unique term for each of
the various ways that a product is made from green materials.
"Green Nontoxic," for example, would denote a product created out
of all-natural, nontoxic ingredients.

Finally, a revamped terminology should offer a unique term for each
of the ways that the product conserves energy — "Green Water
Saver," for example.

Brand manufacturers have never been too keen about adding words to
their packaging until those words will help to move the product.
These will. Because a better way of defining what green means,
brand-by-brand, won't just improve the communication between brand
and consumer, but also among consumers themselves.

As eco-friendly practices leave us with a cleaner environment, it's
time that we have brands whose claims to eco-friendliness are
equally clear.

Michael Mercier is the president of Cincinnati-based Deeper
Insights Market Research and Consulting.

No Responses to “A Clockwork Green”

  1. Interesting to think about, but I always get a little wary of adding info, categories, etc. as it seems like it can just add further confusion. Perhaps the most effective approach would be to provide additional info on the web for those who want it?

  2. There is an opportunity for the web to hold the larger store of information, but I do think that marketers need to improve the clarity of their terms and brand because there is just too much customer confusion.

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