A Green Fog

Green marketing hypeI’ve blogged before about evolving consumer attitudes on “green” products, and the telltale signs that “green fatigue” may be setting in with at least some people.

And now we have survey results that lend additional support to this observation. Harris Interactive conducted an online survey of ~2,350 U.S. adults in November, 2010 – one which is done annually by the polling firm. A comparison between the 2010 and 2009 survey results suggests that fewer Americans are engaging in various green behaviors in their daily lives.

While the year-on-year differences may be slight, the overall trend in participation is down. To illustrate, here are the comparative percentages of respondents who report that they “always” or “often” engage in certain “green” activities:

 Turning off lights when leaving a room: 81% (versus 83% in 2009)
 Making an effort to use less water: 57% (vs. 60%)
 Purchasing locally grown produce: 33% (vs. 39%)
 Purchasing locally manufactured products: 23% (vs. 26%)

Are there any areas where the trend is up rather than down? Actually, no. But Harris did find one area of stability: The same percentage of respondents in both years reported “always” or “often” engaging in recycling activities (68%).

What about other environmental activities? Again, the trend lines aren’t going in green’s favor:

 Purchased energy-efficient appliances (e.g., Energy Star): 30% (versus 36% in 2009)
 Donated or recycled electronic devices or parts: 32% (vs. 41%)
 Switched from bottled water to filtered tap water: 23% (vs. 29%)
 Purchased a more fuel-efficient car or hybrid vehicle: 8% (vs. 13%)

In fact, only one of the nearly 20 activities that were surveyed by Harris showed a positive “green” trend for 2010 versus the year prior — and that was switching to paperless statements for personal financial accounts.

Big whoop.

In trying to understand what is causing the change in behavior, it’s too simplistic to cite the economic recession. After all, 2010 was a less challenging year on that front compared to 2009, when the economy was really in the dumper.

For clues, we might turn to several other consumer research studies. The 2010 Green Gauge® Study conducted by GfK Roper gives us some possible reasons. That study concluded that there’s a sense of “green fatigue” among U.S. consumers. Clear majorities believe that green products are “too expensive” … while one–third of the people surveyed believe that green products “don’t work as well” as the alternatives.

But a more startling statistic from the GfK Roper study is that nearly 40% of the people surveyed feel that “green products aren’t really better for the environment.”

That shows a pretty skeptical public! And what about the issue of truth in advertising? The newest Green Gap Trend Tracker survey from Cone, just released this month, found that well over half of the ~1,035 adults surveyed do not trust the “green” claims made by products and brands.

Interestingly, even with so much of the consumer participation trending down rather than up, these surveys also found that more people today actually consider themselves to be environmentalists or green/environmentally aware.

So, consumers see themselves as green-friendly … but it’s all in how someone defines the term. As it turns out, it’s a murky definition that has people all over the map when it comes to the actual behavior.

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.

The “Greening” of Corporate America: Fact or Fad?

Considering the cold winter season we’re having – not to mention the equally cold economic and business environment – it’s not hard to imagine that the “corporate green” trend, so popular and prevalent only a year or two ago, might have stalled out in a major way.

Add to this the recent flap over climate change data fudging by some over-enthusiastic scientists, and it seems the perfect recipe for “corporate green” being a movement that’s on the wane.

But a just-completed market research study on “green” marketing provides interesting clues that this might not be the case. A group of U.S. commercial/industrial firms was surveyed for MediaBuyerPlanner, an arm of Watershed Publishing, to determine the extent of green marketing that is occurring. Among the key findings:

• ~70% of the firms surveyed consider themselves to be “somewhat green” or “very green” … but they suspect that customers think of them as less green than they actually are. Perhaps related to this concern, ~80% of the respondents expect to spend more on green marketing in the future – and that percentage approaches 90% among the manufacturers contained in the survey sample.

• For those who currently feature “green” marketing themes in their promotional efforts, the most popular media for that is using the web (~74% of respondents), followed by print promotion (~50%) and direct marketing (~40%).

• More than half of the companies reported that they are taking concrete steps to become “greener” in their operations. The most popular actions are conserving energy in their operations (~60%) and changing products to reflect greener characteristics, such as altering product ingredients, packaging, or intended uses (~54%).

And here’s another interesting survey finding: Quite a few respondents believe their green marketing efforts are more effective than their normal marketing efforts. (One third of them felt this way, compared to just 7% who felt regular marketing activities are more effective than their green messaging. The remaining 60% have not observed a measurable differentiation and/or did not feel knowledgeable enough to make a judgment.)

The survey also found that the commitment senior management makes to sustainability and other green principles in the form of specific actions is what comes first … followed later by “green” marketing efforts. In other words, there is a lower incidence of companies creating green marketing campaigns just out of a desire to appear “green.”

This suggests that green marketing depends first on company management buying into the ideological principals of environmentalism.

Certainly, the “soft economy” as well as the controversy of “soft science” could be acting as a damper on the potency of green messaging. But this field research suggests that “corporate green” continues to be a trend as opposed to just a passing fad … and that its significance as a marketing platform for companies will grow stronger in the coming years.