Earth Day @ 45: Through the Lens of Green Marketing

Earth Day

I don’t think of myself as old, but I am old enough to remember attending the 20th annual Earth Day celebration in 1990. It seems like just yesterday that hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to commemorate two decades of the event, which was first celebrated in 1970. While Earth Day was born out of the 1960s counterculture, there were a lot of heavy hitters behind it: UN Secretary General U Thant supported a day to honor the earth as a global observation, and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson helped establish April 22 as a day to be observed in the United States.

45 years after the first Earth Day, environmentalism has steadily moved toward the mainstream. Originally seen as a fringe movement, the push to go green has taken a prominent place in our nation’s consciousness. Not only is the topic discussed daily in the media, but many corporations have made environmentalism a key element of their marketing. In fact, some brands are entirely built around the perception that they are more desirable because they are better for the environment. What does green marketing really mean? How often is it based on genuine environmental goals, or simply a ploy to gain trust and attract consumers?

Green product, green marketing

The history of eco-themed marketing contains a huge variety of tactics and motivations. One end of the spectrum features companies where the eco-friendly nature of their product practically dictates the marketing strategy. A product developed explicitly along green lines will naturally target (and often attract) consumers who seek to minimize environmental impact. In marketing jargon, this consumer segment is termed LOHAS – Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. The interests of LOHAS are typically defined as focused on responsible living, personal health and fitness, nature, and politics. As a demographic, LOHAS comprise a significant but not massive section of the total consumer base.

Method cleaning products is a classic example of a company where the nature of the product almost markets itself. The company rose to prominence using minimal paid advertising. The company founders recognized a demand for a distinct brand of cleaners that offered green alternatives to the industry giants. Simply by convincing stores to stock their products – with distinctive labeling that trumpeted their green nature – Method was able to attract and grow a loyal audience of consumers.

Sending a green message

Method’s story may be most instructive as an exception that proves a rule. Most companies lack the easy clarity of Method’s “green product + green marketing = consumer demand” scenario. What if you are an established business and not only lack a clear opportunity for green marketing, but risk negative consequences from the rise of sustainable marketing and awareness?

Tide laundry detergent, owned by Proctor and Gamble (P&G), is a study in how to embrace green marketing in the face of adverse conditions. In 2011, though the detergent was selling well, the company decided to proactively alter some aspects of their product and their marketing. P&G had two goals: influence how consumers wash their clothes in order to reduce environmental impact from the use of hot water in laundry, and define the Tide brand as a leader in green practices. The Tide Coldwater brand was introduced along with ambitious goals at a socially prestigious Clinton Global Initiative event. Though P&G expended considerable resources in changing the formula of some of their products, as well as in supporting a campaign touting the benefits of washing with cold water, the commercial context of the effort was always visible. P&G gained massive media attention, and the Tide name reached millions in the name of environmental education. The Tide Coldwater Challenge campaign is the apex of the total marketing effort. P&G has been able to leverage Internet and viral marketing in a manner similar to Method.

Pushing green through other means

Close attention to the messaging of the Tide Coldwater campaign reveals an important factor in the success or failure of green marketing. When Tide touts the virtues of using cold rather than warm water for laundry, the value proposition that it saves energy (and therefore lowers energy bills) is just as prominent as various eco-friendly messages. Method’s exceptional success story once again offers us a lesson: While the LOHAS market segment can be won over strictly through the promotion of sustainable values, mainstream consumers are not.

Whether a corporation’s green marketing is based on genuine environmental goals, or simply a ploy to gain trust and attract consumers, one thing is for sure – green marketing is mainstream and here to stay. I cannot imagine a world in the future that isn’t concerned about the nature of the products we are using.


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