Marketing by Design: Going Green

Do sustainable business practices really matter to consumers?
By Dick Wolfe
June 07, 2010

If you walked up to a consumer and asked that question, odds are you would get a “yes.” It’s one of those questions to which most people don’t feel comfortable saying “no.” Politicians often frame questions in that way: “Don’t you want to guarantee every child the opportunity for a good education?” No one is going to say no to that. However, when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of how you do it, reasonable people can certainly disagree.

It’s the same with sustainability. Most people are in favor of it, but not everyone has the same perception.

About a year and a half ago during the last days of the presidential election, we saw some research from Burst Media about consumer attitudes toward “green.” We wrote about it in our newsletter, Insight, which we distribute free to clients and other businesspeople (You can contact me below to see that article or to sign up for future issues—again, it’s free). I haven’t really seen anything since then that contradicts those findings.

As it relates to sustainability, the consumer base can be divided into roughly three groups. The first two groups together represent less than half of all consumers: true believers for whom sustainability is a major criterion for everything they do or buy, and the utilitarians who don’t really care very much about green issues and buy mostly based on price or functional benefits.

The majority, well over half, fall into the third group of green-aware consumers who value sustainability but consider other factors when making a purchase.

It’s obvious where the growth opportunity lies. How do we market sustainability to the third group? Following are four rules to keep in mind:

1. Tell the absolute truth and be able to prove it. Almost 90% of consumers are skeptical of the green claims they see in advertising and elsewhere. Plus, they do a lot of research. Between 40% and 50% of consumers will research environmental claims they hear. Don’t get caught “greenwashing,” i.e., making overblown claims you can’t substantiate. If you say the product you are recommending as part of a design project is made with 100% recyclable material from a renewable source and no child labor was used in the manufacture, back it up with facts. Credible, third-party verification is key.

2. It can’t cost more just because it’s green. Given a choice, if a green-aware consumer sees two products, one sustainable and one not, that are essentially the same in both function and price, they will choose the sustainable product. If they feel they are paying a premium merely because it’s green, they will buy the less expensive product. In order to sell a higher-priced product, you either must demonstrate that they will recover their money over time through energy or other savings, or you must demonstrate some other significant benefit beyond the cheaper product.

For energy or water-using products such as a dishwasher, a shower or a refrigerator, you can show savings over time. For inanimate objects like cabinets and countertops, it is more difficult. That entails really getting to know your products and working with your supplier to deliver the messages the consumer needs to hear to understand the value. Whether it’s increased durability, superior design or something else, be able to articulate it clearly to the consumer.

3. Make it relevant. If you walk in and tell someone that your design package is going to help win the fight against global warming, don’t be surprised if you get a blank look. Putting aside the grandiosity of such a claim, consumers are most interested in what will make a difference in their lives. As was talked about above, make it relevant to their everyday life. Tell them how it will save energy, save money, contribute to better indoor air quality or some other tangible benefit.

4. If you’re committed to sustainable design, make it part of your image. Document on your website and in your marketing materials how sustainability is part of what you do. Make sure consumers have access to information on the products you specify and the work you do as it relates to any green claims you make. Informative transparency is critical to acceptance of sustainable positioning.

Once again, the key points to remember are:
• Be honest
• Show real benefits to the environment and the consumer
• Document facts through credible, third-party sources
• Communicate clearly and openly, particularly on your website

Another source for information consumer attitudes related to green home design is www.leed.net from the U.S. Green Building Council.

—Dick Wolfe is VP of Gibbs & Soell Inc., a leading independent public relations agency that specializes in the residential and commercial building and remodeling industries. As a part of G&S' Consumer Lifestyle and Building Solutions Practice, Wolfe brings deep experience as a trusted communications advisor to companies seeking successful brand positioning, marketing communications and visibility campaigns that focus on the design community. To contact Wolfe with questions and suggestions on topics for future articles, please email him at dwolfe@gibbs-soell.com.


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