Is Green No Longer Golden?

Green Marketing HypeA funny thing’s happening on the way to nirvana in the environmental world. Consumers are balking.

That’s the conclusion drawn by several articles appearing recently in The Wall Street Journal and Advertising Age.

The Wall Street Journal article, written by Stephanie Simon and published in October 2010, focuses on what motivates consumers to “turn green.” Is it the strength of the environmental message? Appealing to our better nature? A feeling of affinity with nature?

Hardly. It turns out it’s good old fashioned guilt. In particular, if people are aware that their colleagues or neighbors are doing a better job than they are on the green scene, they’re more likely to respond to the peer pressure.

Simon references two recent studies to illustrate the point. In the first, a mid-size hotel attempted to promote towel reuse by placing placards in guest rooms. One placard was headlined “Help Save the Environment,” while another one trumpeted, “Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping to Save the Environment.”

Guests who saw the second placard were 25% more likely to reuse their towels. And in a follow-up to the initial experiment, guests who were informed what percent of past guests in their room had reused towels, the compliance rate went even higher.

In the other study, middle-income residential utility customers in San Marcos, CA were given one of four doorknob hangers that promoted the use of fans instead of air conditioning, each touting a different message:

Hang-tag #1: Save $54 a month on your utility bill!
Hang-tag #2: Prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gases per month!
Hang-tag #3: Conservation: It’s the socially responsible thing to do!
Hang-tag #4: 77% of your neighbors already use fans instead of air conditioning – it’s your community’s popular choice!

The result? Consumers presented with the fourth hang-tag reduced their energy consumption by an average of ~10% … compared to 3% or less reduction in energy consumption for any of the other hang-tags.

But peer pressure lasts only so long, as the study found that all four groups slipped in their conservation as time went on.

If the Wall Street Journal article poses some interesting perspectives regarding motivational factors, a November 2010 Advertising Age article by Jack Neff claims that a quiet backlash may be growing against green products and green marketing. Neff reports slowing sales in key green categories such as cleaning products and water filtration devices.

Timothy Kenyon, a senior marketing analyst at GfK Roper Consulting and author of the 2010 Green Gauge® study, dubs the slowdown “green fatigue.” But the phenomenon may be more than simply fatigue, because greater numbers of people are exhibiting outright disbelief in claims that up until now have gone essentially unchallenged.

In fact, 61% of the respondents in that Green Gauge® study believe that green products are too expensive, up significantly from the 53% who held this view in 2008. One-third of respondents think that green products “don’t work as well” (the figure was closer to 25% in 2008). Most startlingly, nearly 40% of the respondents feel that “green products aren’t really better for the environment” – again, up from 30% two years earlier.

With this degree of environmental skepticism now charting with American consumers, the Advertising Age article suggests several ways for companies to keep green marketing relevant and worthwhile as a message platform:

Don’t expect any real sacrifice from consumers – whether it’s paying more, accepting lower performance or sacrificing convenience, it’s likely to be a non-starter.

Don’t overstate the case – many people already think green products don’t work as well as their conventional counterparts, and they will punish brands that purport to perform better but fail to live up to the claim.

Promote product benefits that go beyond “green” – green features are really just tie-breakers in the decision to purchase a product, so it’s better to have something else to talk about as well.

The bottom line these days: Green is no longer gold, and consumers have moved well beyond the siren call of “green for green’s sake.”

The novelty has worn off … and the skepticism has set in.

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