Is Simple The New Green?

The last couple of years have been witness to a stampede of product launches featuring green attributes and positioning. According to Ad Age, the nation's shelves will be stocked with more than 1,500 new products featuring green messages by the end of this year.

Today, however, marketers are beginning to shift their attention toward a new direction: simplicity. Where product promoters previously struggled with competing claims of "eco-friendliness" and "sustainability," they are now beginning to develop new positions around relative levels of "simplicity" and "ease-of-use."

Amply supported by recent examples of success, this Simple Revolution is fast becoming the new banner below which corporate marketers are rallying.

Not surprisingly, the technology industry is at the epicenter of the Simple Revolution, and recent examples of the power of simplicity are manifest in the category.

Consider the netbook. These stripped-down laptop computers do little more than provide access to email and the Internet, yet they now account for about 20% of PC sales a little more than two years after they hit the market. Another example: the Flip video camera. When the Flip line was introduced in 2007, it shot in low def and had virtually no image controls. It also sold over 1 million units virtually overnight.

Yes, those products are considerably less expensive than their competitors'. But the difference in price doesn't tell the whole story.

In March 2009, Haagen-Dazs launched a new premium product line called Five. Five was developed with fewer, more recognizable ingredients (the name reflects the number of ingredients in the product: milk, cream, sugar, eggs and a natural flavor such as vanilla bean.) In just eight months, Five sales have grown to account for 10% of Haagen-Dazs business.

The irony here, of course, is that products that aspire to be perceived as green, with their promises of enabling a simpler, less impactful lifestyle, are rife with confusing messages. This confusion in turn perpetuates distrust in the products themselves: according to a recent survey by BBMG, only 5% of respondents trust green claims in advertising.

So will the Simple Revolution supplant the Green one? Not necessarily, but green marketers need to consider some "simple" lessons.

Define ... : Consider the number of different terms used to describe green products: green, natural, organic, eco-friendly, biodegradable, etc. The differences between these terms are largely indistinguishable to consumers. Choose wisely when selecting terminology, and avoid buzz words whenever possible.

... and Streamline: For better or worse, we live in Twitter-time. If an idea, concept or benefit takes more than 15 seconds to digest, chances are it won't be. So when you're writing out that value proposition, keep it below 140 characters.

WIIFM: When we hold focus groups on sustainability issues, we hear the same thing over and over again: "That's great and all, but What's In It For Me?" If your pitch begins with a big, high concept idea (e.g. "Buy this and save the planet!") it's time to go back to the drawing board.

The Audience is Listening: But which audience? Consumers? Regulators? Certification boards? Knowing what information each particular audience wants, and then delivering just that information, is an essential step toward simplicity.

Transparency ... to a Point: Advocates of transparency believe that companies should reveal everything about their operations. But consider: when's the last time you read a corporate annual report? Turning on a fire hose of information only serves to further mystify people. Yes, transparency is important, but the "how" you release information is equally important to the "what" you release.

So keep it simple, stupid (just because it's trite and overused doesn't mean it isn't also true and effective.) As green marketers, our collective ability to learn from these early success stories of the Simple Revolution will pay enormous dividends in reducing confusion and encouraging adoption of green products.

4 comments about "Is Simple The New Green? ".
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  1. Andrea Learned from Learned On, LLC, December 30, 2009 at 12:53 p.m.

    Thanks for this reality check, David. Sounds like great overall marketing advice, green consumer or not: To speak in, or present the product/service in, the language your customers are speaking. That takes really knowing who they are, knowing exactly what about "green" engages them (and simplicity may well be it for a lot of people today) and paying attention to how and when they want to hear about it. Marketing to sustainably-minded consumers is, for the most part, revisiting excellent marketing practices - as we all may have lost sight of the basics in our frantic tizzy to gain 24/7 customer attention. Relax.. and yes, KISS.

  2. Jacquelyn Ottman, December 30, 2009 at 1:50 p.m.

    NIce article, David. Green is about simplicity, saving resources, and ultimately simplifying cluttered, resource-consuming lives. Makes sense that marketing should mirror that. If only marketers would encourage simplification and what I call "responsible consumption".

  3. Matthew Rochte from Opportunity Sustainability, January 4, 2010 at 1:14 p.m.

    Great observations. The GREEN and Sustainability movements are at their core about simplicity. When I work with clients who are just getting into sustainability, I start with simple. A lot of green and sustainability in the workplace has to do with smart, lean operations; actually measuring the impact of a process; and finding simpler solutions that are cost effective, environmentally sound, and socially and culturally sound. It is always amazing to realize that simple "traditional" cleaning methods often work better than ABC company's "Superclean XYZ". The more complicated products were, the more we thought we couldn't do with out them. Lets go back to basics.

    Green marketing and green-washing are another animal. If you have to invent a way for your product to be green (making it more complex), it probably isn't green. To avoid greenwash I tell my clients to keep it simple, direct, transparent, and lean. When you are transparent, you can't hide.

    Matthew Rochte
    Sustainability/CSR Consultant

  4. Kelly Lester, January 11, 2010 at 9:05 p.m.

    Hi David.
    So many excellent points in your article! As a consumer and a business owner, I strive to purchase well made items that are budget friendly, green, and most importantly, actually useful! As our paychecks have decreased, our shopping has also decreased and as a family we are are making smarter decisions about where to spend our dollars.
    My company is in the 'food' biz and it all started from a desire to send my kids to school with simple, healthy, food with little to no extra packaging or ingredients. I'm trying to help others with this concept "one lunch box at a time." Thanks for pointing out how a simple solution is often the best one!
    Kelly Lester/CEO/

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