To Err -- Make That Green -- Is To Be Human

From BP green-washing to Sun Chips bending under the weight of consumer pressure, the headlines have not been good for green marketing. At first glance, the future is looking less mint green and more a pale chartreuse these days, but success stories from other areas of the sector offer clues to a more skin-tone hue.

As many of you already know, Sun Chips has stopped producing its 100% biodegradable chip bags because of consumer complaints that the bags are too noisy. Social media-driven consumer lobby: 1, Planet Earth: 0. It's just one chip bag in a multitude. So, why is Sun Chips' move giving my gut that queasy déjà vu feeling that I experienced in the early 1990s, after the last big green faux-renaissance? Could this be the canary-in-a-coalmine turning point for the new green economy?

Aside from Sun Chips' reactionary shortsightedness of a missed marketing opportunity (expounded beautifully in a post by Catharine P. Taylor in MediaPost's Social Media Insider), there's something generally foreboding about this decision. After all, "green" affects all of us in a way that's much deeper than our work at agencies or companies. Presumably, regardless of our political leanings, we all want to live in a cleaner world don't we?

If marketers and advertisers are truly supposed to be clamoring for green and cause-based initiatives, why would a product like Sun Chips not embrace all this attention as a way of clearly positioning itself on the green side of the equation?

Part of the answer may lie in the belief that public perception is moving away from green. Spike Lee's recent documentary, "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," documents some scathing verbal attacks on BP. In one particular rant, a New Orleans slam poet yells a string of alternative acronyms for BP, employing just about every B or P expletive ever devised. It was an illustration of the angry sentiment that BP has led us astray with their "Beyond Petroleum" branding. Let's be clear: BP's green marketers are being called out, folks.

Meanwhile though, my inbox is filled with success stories of cause-based initiatives in year 2 of this renaissance. Most significantly is Toronto agency, The Hive Strategic Marketing. Last year, I reported on the Bicycle Factory campaign: a multi-platform initiative combining consumer purchase with social investment for Cadbury.

A few weeks ago, it was announced that The Bicycle Factory not only won the Marketing Agencies Association Globe Award (first prize) for Best Cause or Charity Marketing Campaign, but it also won the Best in the World Award for the same campaign. The campaign generated 500,000 unique purchases and web engagements, sending 5,000 bikes to Africa.

Despite an alleged green backlash, there still exists deep and repeated cause-marketing success. Anyone for a game of which of these things belongs together?

It's not enough to be green, and maybe not even enough to be good (as Sun Chips experienced). The key to any green campaign is to insure that it is tied very closely with some accountable and measurable social good! It's no coincidence that green and cause-based trends are correlated with financial meltdown and social discontent. But, the motivating force behind this is essentially a human-centric one. Destroying fish in the Gulf of Mexico is one thing, but destroying a fishery is quite another.

Marketers and advertisers need to continue to tap into the powerful anger, fear, passion, and hope that green marketing can nourish. However, the next evolution of this trend will require creative and accountable ways of tying green to the human factor.

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4 comments about "To Err -- Make That Green -- Is To Be Human ".
  1. Chris Corbett from KMA Direct Communications , October 27, 2010 at 12:32 p.m.

    This is a very lucidly written article that gives a lot to think about (not the least of which is that "noisy" bags would actually drive mass marketing decisions, again proving that markets are full of surprises).

    I guess my top reaction, though, is that it's likely that green marketing may be experiencing an all-fronts drag produced by the overselling of its case, followed by the perceived failure of its case.

    And specifically, I refer to climate change. Al Gore et al may end up doing more to damage green marketing than anything Rush Limbaugh could concoct. The science simply hasn't delivered on the prophecies of doom, and incidents like the email scandal of grant-seeking global warmists haven't helped.

    Of course, market research and testing are needed to substantiate or falsify this thesis, but you can't help but wonder if this hasn't set up green marketing for a fall. Green marketers substituted perceived hype (global warming) for more down-to-earth motivators (old-fashioned conservation, economic benefits, etc.), as other articles here have pointed out. Things got political and ideological.

    It's not too late to turn that around, but major course corrections may be in order.

  2. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , October 27, 2010 at 12:53 p.m.

    Wow. Al Gore is the damage guy? Climate change is a bunch of hokum? Thank heavens Chris is in the minority. Reminds me of the survey released yesterday:
    According to a recent survey by Opinion Research Corporation and reported today by the Civil Society Institute “Independents are more than twice as likely as Tea Party supporters (62 percent versus 27 percent) to see global warming as a problem in need of a solution, compared to 39 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats.

    Time to start educating the "green" crew here on sustainability and a more holistic approach to changing the unsustainable practices around consumption.

  3. Chris Corbett from KMA Direct Communications , October 27, 2010 at 1:55 p.m.

    Ruth Ann, I appreciate your thoughts, but consider that they may be a part of the problem. Recent surveys show that concern over global warming has hit a ceiling in public opinion (http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N12201372.htm, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/current_events/environment_energy/energy_update; http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/01/27/another-survey-shows-public-opinion-on-global-warming-is-in-decline/). There are many more.

    They all paint the same picture: more American consumers are now skeptical of global warming alarmism than believe in it. Why? The science hasn't backed up the hype in the public mind. The survey you cite is of a small niche of the consumer population, whereas the surveys I've cited are of the entire population, and I think some are surveys of surveys.

    You can continue to ignore it. You can continue to think Al Gore is a prophet and scientifically sharp, despite growing angst by pro-climate change scientists that he may have oversold the movement. You can continue to believe all of that. But it's never good to create messaging that doesn't resonate with your target audience or try to lecture them into believing something their eyes don't see and their gut doesn't accept.

  4. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , October 28, 2010 at 12:46 a.m.

    We have over 600 EarthSayers, sustainability advocates, on EarthSayers.tv. Listen for yourself. You need to open up your ears to the evidence. Global warming search on Google continues to grow as does climate change and sustainability. The small niche study is current. Not going to argue further on this Chris. It's not just about Al Gore. I didn't call him a prophet, you did.