Worry Over Global Warming Cools

Adweek logo2 Adweek examines the strategic gap in support for climate change solutions and explains what it means for green marketers. He encourages marketers to break out green behavior and messaging from global warming (which seems like a legislative and not consumer issue). He shows how Copenhagen is unlikely to have an impact on mainstream Americans (similarly to many people's reactions to An Inconvenient Truth).

Posted Dec. 15, 2009
By Mark Dolliver, Adweek

Even as this month's Copenhagen conference generates front-page
headlines, polls show Americans' concern about global warming is
tepid. If marketers wish to tap into consumers' green sentiment —
of which there is plenty — survey data and some expert opinion
give reason to think a focus on global warming will be a tough way
to do it.

Many a tree has been felled lately to print findings of opinion
surveys in which people increasingly shrug off global warming as a
major concern, or express doubt that it's happening at all. In an
Ipsos/McClatchy poll released last week (and fielded earlier this
month), 70 percent of respondents agreed that the world's
temperatures "have been going up slowly over the past 100 years."
But just 43 percent said they think the earth has been warming
"mostly because of human activity."

And the Ipsos/McClatchy poll is scarcely an outlier in its
findings. In a Harris Poll last month, a bare majority of
respondents (51 percent) said they "believe the theory that
increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the
atmosphere will, if unchecked, lead to global warming," down from
75 percent in 2001. That's in sync with the findings of Pew
Research Center polling over the years. In surveys in 2006 and
2007, 77 percent of respondents agreed that there is "solid
evidence the earth is warming." By this October, the number holding
that view had fallen to 57 percent. So, where does global warming
now stand on the hierarchy of Americans' worries? In a Bloomberg
poll this month, a grand total of 3 percent of respondents picked
"climate change" as "the most important issue facing the country
right now."


The sagging economy has played an obvious role in diminishing the
relative importance Americans assign to global warming and other
environmental concerns. One gets a picture of this in Public
Strategies Inc./Politico polling that explicitly asked people to
say whether "Protection of the environment should be given
priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth" or "Economic
growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to
some extent." In December 2008, environmental protection garnered
almost as many votes as economic growth (49 percent vs. 51
percent). By this October, after a grim year of rising
unemployment, the environment-first vote had tumbled to 38 percent
while the economy-first tally had climbed to 62 percent.

When it comes to purchase behavior and other personal action by
consumers, the difficulty doesn't lie solely with the numbers of
people who take global warming seriously. "I think the phrase
'global warming' frames the issue in a way that makes it less
accessible to the average person," says Bob Kenney, principal of
Context Marketing, a consulting firm whose practice includes
advising companies on how to address societal issues that affect
corporate reputation and consumer preferences. "Global warming
makes it seem like a regulatory and even a political issue, which
implies you let the government handle it. It becomes more
actionable to consumers when you break it down into smaller
behaviors such as recycling and purchasing green products."

In Context Marketing's own polling in September (conducted in
conjunction with Noesis Research, using an upscale-skewing
respondent pool), 26 percent of respondents described themselves as
"very concerned" about global warming/climate change, putting that
issue behind the likes of cellphone use/texting while driving,
dependence on foreign oil and excessive government spending.


Is the high visibility of the Copenhagen conference likely in its
own right to affect consumer behavior? Not in the microeconomics of
consumers' purchase decisions, suggests Suzanne Shelton, president
and CEO of the Shelton Group, an advertising and PR agency that
specializes in motivating "mainstream consumers" to make greener
choices. "We just don't think the Copenhagen summit itself will
have much impact all the way down to the brand level," says
Shelton. She compares this to the situation when the movie An
Inconvenient Truth made a splash in the media. "Many people in the
circles we swim in assumed it was having a giant impact on
consumers," she says. "We tested it in one of our studies and found
it had very little impact." For that matter, not all of the impact
was positive. "Anecdotally, we've found it to be very divisive,
right along party lines, in focus groups," Shelton says. "If
somebody brings up Al Gore, all the Republicans roll their

"Copenhagen will be the same," Shelton continues. "For those
consumers who absolutely don't believe global warming is caused by
man — and that's 20 to 25 percent of the population — it will
just be a giant eye roll, and they'll declare victory that no
actual treaty is created. For those consumers who are totally
bought in and passionate — also about 20 to 25 percent of the
population — they'll see Copenhagen as an affirmation that they're
on the right side of the cause."

This leaves a large constituency of consumers who are concerned in
a not-so-urgent way about global warming and the environment but
may or may not be willing to do something about these matters.
Ipsos MediaCT has looked at how this plays out in people's choices
in buying consumer-technology goods. Among the findings is that
"few technology-purchasing consumers are aware of specific
environmental policies and practices of technology firms, despite
the efforts of companies and the accolades in the media," according
to the research firm's October report of its polling on the


As a case in point, the Ipsos MediaCT report cites Intel. Despite
Intel's being "well known by environmental experts" for its green
practices, "only 7 percent of U.S. consumers associated Intel with
environmentally friendly business practices or policies," says the
report. That's consistent with the broader finding that "the
proportion of consumers who claim they investigated or considered
the environmental aspects of their purchases remains low overall,
with fewer than half saying they considered these issues in their
most recent purchase."

Does such inattention to companies' environmental practices reflect
an obdurate lack of interest from consumers, or are the companies
doing a lackluster job of conveying their green message? "It
appears to be a combination of both lack of interest on the part of
consumers and a less-than-optimized effort by marketers in
communicating the consumer benefits of their respective
environmental policies or features," says Mike Bellmont, svp at
Ipsos MediaCT.

The difficulty is aggravated by the presence of a dual audience
with sharply varying agendas. "Our research revealed a subset of
consumers who are very interested in these features and are
actively seeking out information on environmental practices in
their technology purchase process," says Bellmont. "For these green
consumers, many do not feel technology firms are doing enough and
are hesitant to associate any of the tech firms we tested as being
associated with environmentally friendly business practices. Simply
put, those who are knowledgeable and interested in these features
demand significant efforts and policies." And then there are the
mass of consumers, who remain unimpressed for quite a different
reason: "For the strong majority of consumers that just aren't as
interested in these features, they may not be receiving the 'right'
messages regarding the benefits to them personally," says


You can guess what those benefits might be: "Based on the results
from our research, it is very clear that the most appealing green
policies and features are those that save the consumer money," says
Bellmont. "This is the best way to reach a very broad audience and
expand the importance and awareness of green policies and features.
Unfortunately, 'Save the Planet' claims do not yet strongly
influence the average consumer's technology purchase, particularly
given the current economic environment."

Speaking of the consumer marketplace in general, Shelton concurs on
the need for marketers to emphasize the benefit the purchaser will
personally gain from buying green. "The old adage 'what's in it for
me?' applies to green purchases," she says, "especially in a tight
economy when every purchase is scrutinized. Personal benefits are
much easier to relate with, to see, to experience and enjoy.
Planetary benefits are too vague and too removed from most
consumers' daily experience to use as an emotional lever."

When people do reduce their household's carbon footprint, they're
apt to be thinking of their wallets more than of the planet. In a
USA Today/Gallup poll last month, people who'd taken steps in the
past year to make their homes more energy efficient were asked
whether they did so "mostly to save money" or "mostly to improve
the environment." "Money" beat "environment" by a landslide, 71
percent to 26 percent.


A Harris Poll, fielded over the summer, gives a broader indication
of the dollars-and-cents thinking consumers bring to making (or
declining to make) green purchases. Given a batch of statements and
asked to pick the one that best matches their perspective on
eco-friendly products and services, just a handful picked either "I
seek out green products, no matter the additional cost" (3 percent)
or "I seek out green products even if I have to pay a lot extra" (2
percent). Twenty-six percent said they seek out green goods "even
if I have to pay a little extra." But those willing to pay even a
little more were outnumbered by the sum of those who seek out green
goods "as long as the cost is the same" (29 percent), "only if they
save me at least a little money" (9 percent) and "only if they save
me a lot of money" (7 percent). And that doesn't include the 24
percent who said they "do not seek out green products, no matter
the cost or savings."

Focusing specifically on willingness to pay more in energy costs
"to reduce carbon emissions," Zogby polling last month found 45
percent of respondents willing to pay nothing whatsoever, while
just 10 percent said they'd be willing to pay an extra $26 or more
per month for this purpose. Context Marketing's polling (again,
among a somewhat upscale-skewing cohort) found more willingness to
pay a premium for "responsible brands." More than one-third of its
respondents said they'd be willing to pay an extra 11 percent or
more; about four in 10 said they'd be game to pay an additional
1-10 percent. Still, about one in five said they wouldn't be
willing to pay anything more.

Money isn't the only thing people are reluctant to sacrifice for
the sake of the planet. Polling this past spring by the Shelton
Group asked respondents whether they'd give priority to their
comfort, their convenience or the environment. The environment was
an also-ran, picked by 26 percent, vs. 38 percent citing their
convenience and 35 percent their comfort. When asked in the same
poll whether they'd be willing to give up various appurtenances of
modern life if they "thought these things were harming the
environment," just 16 percent said they'd do without air
conditioning, 14 percent would forgo TV and 7 percent would
dispense with a car.

Compounding the problem is that well-intentioned consumers may
simply not know what sort of changes in their behavior would matter
most in restraining climate change. "The trouble is that most
people don't connect the dots from global warming to their
number-one contribution to the problem — their homes," says
Shelton. "Ninety-seven percent of the population is unaware that
the leading cause of global warming is electricity generation. Most
think it's their cars and trucks." 

If there's widespread indifference and ignorance about global
warming, though, this should not be taken to mean consumers would
give a free pass to companies they perceive as behaving in an
environmentally piggish fashion. And they're increasingly on alert
for "greenwashing." Shelton points to her agency's polling in which
40 percent of respondents said "they'd stop buying a product that
advertised itself is green if the company received a fine from the
government for polluting. And 36 percent said they'd stop buying
the product and lobby their friends and family to stop buying the
product, too. That's up nine points from last year, which speaks to
the level of frustration consumers feel about greenwashing. . . .
They don't have a trusted, credible source for green information,
so they rely on the manufacturers cautiously. Thus, they're ready
to pounce and punish if they're lied to."

Indeed, corporations face a challenging zigzag of attitudes when it
comes to environmental action: Consumers (a) don't trust them and
(b) hold them to a high standard. In this latter regard, some
polling suggests an inclination by consumers to outsource
environmental responsibility to the corporate sector. In an
Associated Press/NBC Universal/GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media
survey last month, 71 percent of respondents said companies have "a
great deal" or "a lot" of responsibility to protect the
environment, exceeding the 60 percent who said people have that
degree of "personal responsibility" in the matter.

"Consumers increasingly want to be assured that the products they
purchase are not harming society in any way, and many people expect
brands and companies to help make the world a better place," says
Kenney. "Women over 30, in particular, seem more critical of
non-responsible brand behavior." But there's considerable doubt
that the corporate sector rises to the occasion in addressing the
environment and other problems. In Context Marketing's polling, for
example, 59 percent agreed that "Most companies do not do enough to
help solve social problems," vs. 11 percent saying, "Most companies
do enough to help solve social problems" and 22 percent saying,
"It's not the responsibility of companies to help solve social


Of course, some consumers may be happy to focus blame on the
corporate sector as a way of justifying their own not-so-green
behavior. Among people who aren't eco-committed, can complaints
about greenwashing be an excuse for ignoring the environment when
making purchase decisions? "Definitely," says Shelton. "We see it
in focus groups all the time. Frankly, it's much more convenient to
deny that you're part of the problem. It saves you from having to
actually change anything about your life — and changing your life
to be more environmentally friendly is often inconvenient and
uncomfortable — and absolves you of guilt. It's much easier to
blame companies or governments or vast scientific conspiracies than
it is to take personal responsibility for a problem."

Companies that have made the effort to be green and/or whose
products are planet-friendly quite naturally want to get credit
with consumers for having done so. But in reaching beyond
environmental enthusiasts to the broader market, they'd do well to
temper the green emphasis of their messaging. "What communicators
need to do is recognize that 'green' is often the tiebreaker in
purchase decisions," says Shelton. "It's not the primary reason or
even the secondary reason in most cases." Belmont makes a similar
point. "Green can be an accompanying differentiator but should
rarely dominate the messaging to the consumer," he says.

On the plus side, though, a brand's green positioning (if justified
by its green authenticity) can be useful both in luring new
customers and in reinforcing brand loyalty. "We have seen a number
of small companies attract customers and become very successful in
part by creating a compelling brand identity based to a large
degree on social conscience," says Kenney. He mentions Whole Foods,
Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks as examples. "I also see where
responsible behavior helps companies with brand loyalty," he adds.
"Corporate virtue is a great way to engage a certain type of
consumer on a deep emotional level, and we know that deeply engaged
consumers are more loyal and likely to make repeat purchases over

No Responses to “Worry Over Global Warming Cools”

  1. For more information on Shelton Group (mentioned in the article above) or our stance on Copenhagen, visit us at http://www.sheltongroupinc.com

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