Marketing by Design: The Green Gap and the Importance of Research

Convince consumers that your firm is committed to the environment
By Dick Wolfe
August 30, 2010

My last couple of columns have focused on different aspects of sustainability and environmental practices. We’re going to continue down that path because, as James Taylor once said when asked why many of his songs sound similar, “You find something that works, you keep doing it.”

My firm, Gibbs & Soell Inc., in conjunction with Harris Interactive Research, recently did a survey on corporate commitment to sustainable business practices. We polled both consumers and Fortune 1000 executives. The results were a bit startling. Despite all the talk about sustainability in the news and elsewhere, only 16 percent of consumers believe a majority of U.S. businesses are committed to being greener. Only 29 percent of executives at Fortune 1000 companies believe a majority of companies are committed to sustainable practices.

You expect consumers to be skeptical of business so that wasn’t a huge surprise, although we would never have guessed how few believed in American businesses’ commitment to eco-friendliness. Moreover businesspeople, as the numbers show, don’t even believe in themselves.

As good researchers, we probed a bit to see what the execs feel the roadblocks to sustainability are. Unsurprisingly, the main reasons relate to profitability. Over three-fourths cited insufficient return on investment as a barrier to sustainable practices. More than 70 percent cited consumers’ unwillingness to pay a premium for green products and services.

These findings demonstrate a communications gap this column has dealt with before. Obviously, most businesses are still struggling with value messages surrounding sustainable products and practices. As we’ve discussed before, simply charging more for something because it is “green” will not fly with the vast majority of consumers. There has to be something clearly defined that makes the product or service more valuable. It can be energy efficiency, durability, aesthetic or something else, but there has to be a payoff, even one that’s emotional. Sustainability can be a differentiator for a business if it’s real and you can explain the value proposition clearly.


Let’s change gears a bit to talk about the value of research, which can be a pathway to opportunity. From the survey cited above, we see a number of ways we can help our current and potential clients with their communications challenges related to sustainability. There is a clear opportunity for those who act swiftly and credibly to take a leadership position. When customers perceive you as a leader, it invariably leads to greater volume and greater profits.

Anyone can do relevant research to gain insight into a market. I know what you’re thinking if you’re a small business: “I can’t afford to do research. Only the big guys can do that.”

That’s not true. In fact, you can’t afford not to. There are several ways to conduct simple, informal research without breaking the bank.

1.    Online survey platforms: SurveyMonkey, Constant Contact and their peers offer low-cost options for gauging your customers’ preferences and satisfaction levels when they may be planning another remodel or upgrade and much more. You simply upload your customer database, select your survey design from templates offered and issue your own customized survey.

2.    Social networks: If you’ve already established business contacts on LinkedIn and Facebook, you’ve got a ready-made sampling audience. LinkedIn offers free features via its  “Ask a Question” functionality and LinkedIn Poll tools that allow you to openly post your query to tens of thousands of people, or selectively to your contacts. Facebook’s version is a free app called SurveyMaster, which allows you to create a survey with up to 20 questions in yes/no or multiple choice formats.

3.    Focus groups: There are some issues best explored in a smaller, face-to-face setting. Gather an audience to test a concept or uncover problems that aren’t as obvious. You can invite existing clients or even prospects who may be unconvinced about the need to do business with you. Expect to pick up the tab on gift incentives or meals for participants.


If you’re a national or global manufacturer, retailer or builder or even a very large regional player, I would recommend third-party researchers with methodologies that can withstand scientific challenges. When your business is at that level, you need sophisticated research efforts that:

•    Assess and recruit specific target audiences
•    Shape questions to uncover rational and emotional purchase behaviors
•    Offer the ability to probe on answers that suggest there is more information to be gained by digging deeper
•    Analyze and interpret data

Those are just a few key things in-depth research can offer. And yes, there is a significant dollar commitment. Still, well-executed research will always more than pay for itself if utilized effectively.

Information-gathering is a great way to get a leg up on competitors by offering products and services that you know are in sync with your customers’ needs and desires. It’s something any business owner can and should do.

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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