April 20th, 2010

Green Marketing: Be Careful What You Wish For

By Kyle Morich

Ad Age had an interesting article yesterday about a shift in Earth Day advertising this year.  Take a second to look it over: Marketers Blame the Consumer in New Save-the-Planet Pitches.  A quick excerpt, in case you are busy:

“The focus of most green advertising has primarily centered on marketers’ own products and process changes to reduce waste and environmental impact. But a growing number of marketers are shifting the focus toward consumer behavior, either in their sustainability PR efforts, their advertising or both.”

Unilever’s latest sustainability report stated that 70% of their environmental impact comes from its consumer’s use and disposal of their products.  P&G is asking its consumers to lower their use of hot water, which is reportedly the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the life cycle of P&G products.  Of course, they also offer Tide Coldwater as the perfect solution for this quandary.

We talk a lot about the role context plays in behavior; more specifically, that there are three layers of context that play a determinative role in consumer habits.

  1. The Meta-Context – an overarching perception of a particular behavior
  2. The Contextual Event – a situation-specific behavior
  3. The Sub-Context – influencing vectors that impact behavior

Sub-Context is one of the more fascinating components of context because of its fluidity.  Consumers create rules, heuristics, and choices that align with their personal sub-context vectors.  As sustainability and environment-friendly messages continue to permeate the advertising landscape, we have begun to see a “Green” vector emerge.  A consumer may create a rule where she only buys recyclable packaging, or, as P&G hopes she will, only use products that work with cold water.

There is, however, a danger in this approach that marketers need to carefully monitor.  The fluidity of the sub-context means that a behavior a consumer identifies as compatible with their “Green” vector today may not align tomorrow.  Consider another sub-context vector: “Health.”  Over the past 25 years, we’ve learned to associate many different rules to make sure our choices and behaviors align with a healthy lifestyle.  It used to be Low Fat.  Then it was Trans-Fat Free.  Then it was Sugar Free.  Now it’s High Fructose Corn Syrup Free.  Tomorrow it could be an entirely new buzzword that raises our eyebrows and causes us to choose a different product on the grocery shelf.

The caution for green behavior advertising is this: by strengthening the power of a Sub-Context vector in the consumer mind, you are opening yourself up to conscious awareness and lessening your ability to control the direction of that vector in the future.  For the “Green” vector, P&G wants the shortcut to be “Cold Water,” but another company could quickly change that to “No Chemicals” or “Hand Wash.”   Sorry, Tide.  By asking consumers to be consciously aware of their purchasing decisions, it is impossible to make their behavior fully automatic.

Shifting green marketing messages onto consumer behavior is a great approach.  The goal of advertising should be 10% persuasion and 90% training.   By giving the consumer cues and a context for using a product in a sustainable way (and therefore aligning with the consumer’s “Green” Sub-Context vector), the advertiser is laying the foundation for repeat and, eventually, habitual usage.  The counter-intuitive strategy here is that once a company’s customers are performing the sustainable behaviors they are touting in their messaging, they need to stop asking their customers to be environmentally conscious.  Otherwise, their ever-conscious customers may be all too willing to listen to a competitor’s green messaging as well.


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