Energy efficiency and the new green marketing: green marketing needs to be recalibrated to meet emerging grassroots demands for fuel and energy efficiency - Column

Energy efficiency and the new green marketing: green marketing needs to be recalibrated to meet emerging grassroots demands for fuel and energy efficiency - ColumnLast spring, the Wall Street Journal reported that "green marketing" was losing its appeal in the United States) After a decade of designing promotional messages and products to meet consumers' environmental sensibilities, companies increasingly found that shoppers were choosing convenience over ecological benefits. Subsequent news reports about declining participation in recycling programs and a proliferation of disposable products filling landfills at a record pace across the country seemed to confirm green marketing's demise. (2) Indeed, with the increasing rhetoric about the need to weaken U.S. clean air laws and expand domestic gas and oil extraction for energy and homeland security, green issues as a whole appear to be taking a back seat to concerns of terrorism, war, and the economy. (3)

Some countertrends over the past year, however, indicate that green marketing is not dead, but rather needs to be recalibrated to meet emerging grassroots demands for fuel and energy efficiency. Companies would be wise to consider the growing sentiment. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, environmentalists' longstanding advocacy for energy and oil conservation took on added resonance as the United States contemplated its dependency on oil from the Middle East. More recently, the U.S. love affair with sport utility vehicles, which account for 27 percent of new-auto sales, has been the target of critical campaigns and negative publicity portraying oil dependency as a threat to U.S. security and the planet's environmental quality. (4) For example, one television advertising campaign from the Detroit Project, spearheaded by columnist Arianna Huffington, pairs images of consumers gassing up their SUVs followed by footage of terrorist training camps with the tag line, "What is your SUV doing to our national security?" Also tying oil profits with terrorism is Politically Incorrect comic Bill Maher, whose new book is entitled, When You Ride Alone, You Ride with bin Laden--What the Government Should be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism. Some activists are promoting oil conservation as a patriotic duty. (5) An Internet "Patriot's Energy Pledge," for instance, encourages online petition signers to serve the United States by taking mass transit, keeping cars tuned, and buying gas-electric hybrid cars. (6)

Interestingly, the religious community is becoming an important advocate for fuel and energy efficiency, exemplified by the Evangelical Environmental Network's controversial "What would Jesus drive?" campaign encouraging the faithful to consider how their vehicles contribute to climate change. (7) Last November, mainstream Christian and Jewish clergy of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment met with top executives of Ford and General Motors, urging them to produce more fuel efficient SUVs, cars, and trucks. (8) Long appearing indifferent to environmental issues, many religions are now recognizing an obligation to be "good stewards" of creation, and some clergy are integrating environmental and energy efficiency advocacy with ministry. (9) For example, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco founded California Interfaith Power and Light to promote renewable and energy efficiency across the state's 50,000 houses of worship to foster both economic and environmental benefits.

Even the Wall Street Journal recently publicized the significant energy savings consumers can reap by replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs with efficient compact fluorescents. (11) Not surprisingly, consumers, too, are showing signs that they are interested in energy efficient products. A recent J. D. Power and Associates study finds that 30 percent of new-car buyers in the United States would "definitely" consider and another 30 percent would "strongly" consider a hybrid gas-electric vehicle. The fuel efficient technology appears to be gaining mainstream acceptance, particularly among women. Federal tax incentives, concerns over fuel prices, foreign oil dependency, and the environment were all cited as driving car buyers' interest in hybrid gas-electric automobiles. (12)

Consumers recognize the threats facing them and the world, and they want to do more than just "shop" as they were asked to do after the September 11th attacks. As disparate voices in society push the "triple bottom line" benefits (cost savings, greater energy security, and a healthier environment), energy efficiency is becoming the most sought-after green product attribute. Business policy can fulfill and perhaps help nurture this trend with the right green marketing message.

Traditionally, consumers have resisted green products, distrusting their claims or believing that they are not as effective as "non-green" products. (13) To address this, the Alliance for Environmental Innovation and household products-maker SC Johnson conducted research a few years ago to explore ways to market legitimate green products beyond the narrow "green" consumer niche, and they uncovered some important insights. (14) First, to have broad appeal, green products must function as effectively as non-green products and avoid the quality/cost trade-off. Consumers will not pay more for inferior products. Second, green features should not be promoted as the primary benefits of the products. Because consumers choose products primarily on how well they meet basic needs--how well they clean clothes, or how reliably they move from point A to point B, for example--marketers should offer environmental features as added selling points for already effective products instead of trying to change consumers' prioritie s.

Last, green product attributes should be promoted so that consumers will feel that they will personally benefit from the product. Shoppers are more likely to act on issues that strongly connect to their personal environment and so will respond to such messages as "safe," "nontoxic," or "cost effective" rather than more traditional green messages like "biodegradable," "biodiversity safe," or "ozone friendly." The most preferred environmental product features identified in the Alliance for Environmental Innovation--SC Johnson study included "safe to use around children," "no strong fumes," "no toxic ingredients," and "no chemical residues." (15) Because green products frequently offer inherent health, safety, and convenience benefits, marketers should promote these benefits to encourage broader acceptance. Evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy can be found in the case of Philips's energy-saving "EarthLight," launched in 1994. Initially, sales were lackluster, but a name change in 2000 to "Marathon" to emphasize the product's long-life convenience has resulted in an annual sales growth of 12 percent since Philips made the switch. (16)

The lesson for selling energy efficiency is that businesses need to pitch the personal benefits most attractive to consumers. For hybrid cars, for example, marketing fuel economy may seem obvious. However, the convenience of not having to fuel up so often may interest long-distance commuters, while the high-tech novelty of the cars may appeal to other market segments. Indeed, some early adopters purchased their hybrids to show off their cars' wizardry among their "techie" friends. Some like to optimize speed and fuel use by playing fuel-economy games--how high can they get their dashboard gas-mileage readouts to go while driving? (17) Sometimes adding novel features to green products also can broaden their acceptance. Some next-generation hybrid vehicles, for example, will have convenient 110-volt electrical outlets for power tools to appeal to construction workers. (18) Given the importance of convenience, building such features into efficient products could further expand their attractiveness.

For more general consumer products, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star certification may be critical for bolstering the credibility of efficiency claims and signaling product quality and savings. Indeed, Energy Star--designated products last year saved more than $6 billion in energy costs and reduced greenhouse emissions equivalent to those from 12 million cars. (19) In today's sluggish economy, money savings may be energy efficiency's most attractive selling point.

In short, green marketing has not died. Rather, its practice needs to change to meet and nurture a growing need in society for energy efficiency. Good green marketing can be used to educate consumers that efficiency is the smart feature to own.

(1.) G. A. Fowler, "'Green' Sales Pitch Isn't Moving Many Products," Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2002, B1, B4.