Moving Green Consumer Purchasing From ‘Me’ to ‘We’

GreenBiz logo2 Melissa Schweisguth makes a good point in a recent GreenBiz article. Recognizing that consumers are drawn to green products and brands that provide them with obvious personal benefits, Schweisguth remarks on the need for a tactical way of promoting brands that are harder to illustrate in that way, like renewable energy. She suggests that education is essential in communicating the value of the brand.

Posted Nov. 24, 2009
By Melissa Schweisguth, GreenBiz

Brands in today's rapidly growing sustainability marketplace face
ever-increasing challenges reaching consumers, since they must rise
above the tide of competing products and services, and the marketing
pitches that go with them.

Market research (see the Hartmann Group and the Shelton Group)
reliably finds that the majority of consumers are most likely to put
their dollars toward greener options when they perceive a clear,
personal benefit such as saving energy, avoiding toxic chemicals and
enhancing health; or don't have to make sacrifices or pay much more. In
line with these results, marketing experts advise companies that they
can maximize sales of environmentally oriented offerings by emphasizing
what's in it for consumers.

This strategy is on target in many cases, but has its limits. Not all
green products have immediate, perceivable returns for the end-user,
such as renewable energy. The personal benefits of others have been the
subject of ongoing debate, or might not be a sufficient draw on their
own. For example, the lower bills that result from replacing an
inefficient major appliance with a new energy-saving model may not seem
worth the ticket price for some buyers.

Many environmentally preferable options cost more due to smaller
economies of scale, adherence to higher-level sustainability practices
that internalize more of the lifecycle cost or lack of financial
incentives provided to mainstream counterparts. Organic foods involve
farming methods that are more labor-intensive in the absence of
synthetic agricultural chemicals and don't qualify for agricultural
subsidies oriented to non-organic farms.

Companies with these types of products and services face a more complex
marketing challenge, since consumer purchasing interest is far lower
for things that appear to benefit some broader "we" more than the
individual, "me." Yet, they also face an opportunity to advance
business as well as the greater good, as there's clearly a significant
gap between the actual size of the green marketplace and its potential.

Businesses and society will benefit economically by maximizing revenue
and income distribution across industries leading the way toward better
practices. We'll address environmental issues like climate change,
non-renewable resource depletion, water scarcity and pollution more
successfully, in line with their actual scope and planetary carrying
capacity. Society will see more equitable resource allocation and
improved environmental health as we right-size our environmental
footprint on a broader scale, addressing key issues largely left out of
the green business boom.

Education is key to achieve this — focused on both the benefits
themselves and the issues behind them. In communicating benefits,
combining those related to the personal and the greater good makes for
a stronger impact with broader appeal. Taking organic foods as an
example, marketers can highlight the absence of chemical residues and
hormones as a personal benefit, bolstered by a spotlight on how organic
farming addresses climate change by improving soil carbon sequestration
over non-organic methods and foregoing the use of petroleum-based

To help individuals relate to indirect benefits, it's essential to help them understand the underlying environmental issues. The Shelton Group found
that the majority of green-leaning consumers are fuzzy on concepts like
climate change, indicating they simply lack a sufficient basis for
evaluating a product's full impact and choosing better options.

Education can also help show how environmental impacts "somewhere else"
are personally relevant, further increasing the value proposition for
greener choices. For example, when citizens will understand how
greenhouse emissions and water pollution somewhere else impact global
climate or make their way to local communities, they'll have more
reason to put their dollars towards the greater good.

Engaging consumers to invest their dollars in positive change beyond
their immediate, local context is critical to move the green
marketplace to the next level and address environmental issues at a
appropriate speed and scale. It's also an essential strategic direction
for corporate sustainability programs — shifting from protecting and
enhancing an individual business in the short term toward long-term
stewardship of people and planet, and ultimately commerce. Perhaps
marketers might also focus their messaging inward to drive business and
markets forward at the same time.

Melissa Schweisguth is director of membership development and education for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association and an independent consultant on CSR/sustainability and marketing/communications.

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