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Marketing Experts: Important tips on avoiding "green marketing myopia"

on • 5 min. read

Recently, I read a fascinating article on green marketing (Promoting the Value of Sustainably Minded Purchase Behaviors) by Professors Cathy Hartman and Edwin R. Stafford of the Center for the Market Diffusion of Renewable Energy and Clean Technology at Utah State University. The gist of the argument Stafford and Hartman are making is threefold:

  1. Corporations "readily recognize the value of becoming more sustainable...because they see how sustainability can benefit them"
  2. Consumers, in contrast, "remain stubbornly indifferent or antagonistic about going green," saying it's too "hippie," "elitist," "feminine," "inferior," "costly," "not aligned with their values," etc.
  3. To help remedy this situation, "marketers must tap into the target audience’s values and align green attributes with sought-after consumer benefits" (e.g., cost, energy savings, health and safety, better performance, status and prestige) and not focus "too much on greenness."

As someone heavily involved in helping to communicate the benefits of green energy, I found the authors' arguments intriguing and was curious to learn more. I requested a phone interview with Stafford and Hartman, and they graciously agreed. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

  • We had an extended discussion of their article, Making Green More Macho. According to Edwin Stafford, "many men are timid or afraid about going green because [they perceive it as] too feminine." The answer, in Stafford's view, is to "reframe your marketing to appeal to a macho audience."
  • An example of this was the "'Don't Mess with Texas" campaign against littering, which appealed to men's pride in being Texan, in their "strong love of the state."
  • More generally, Stafford said his work has "focused on how do we take non-green consumers and convince them to buy green products, and the way to do that is to not emphasize green per se, but to emphasize the consumer value that's inherent in those green products...energy savings...health and safety...convenience...Texas pride."
  • How did these negative images of "green" come about? According to Cathy Hartman, "...it gets written into cultural narrative, and it's very very hard to change these stories....It wasn't too long ago when consumers were asked what the world would look like if we had more environmentally responsible products, and they came up with the idea of Gilligan's Island, that people will have to hang out their wash to dry, and live in tents..."
  • On the other hand, Hartman pointed out, "If people can see" that they can have "all of the amenities" they expect and don't have to "sacrifice these things to be environmentally responsible," then "green" becomes a lot more appealing.
  • Edwin Stafford explained that "green" is often associated with "this hippyish, unshaven sort of look....Robert Redford, Hollywood, more elitist, maybe liberal, Al Gore types...so you have people who don't want to buy into...those lifestyles...[conservatives say to themselves] 'I don't look like those people."
  • Stafford argued that much of green marketing is geared towards women ("a focus on daisies and flowers"), which some men react to by thinking, "I'm a guy, i don't want to be seen with a man purse."
  • An example of successful "green marketing" to men is Tesla, which was has been promoted successfully as "cool," "awesome," "speedy," "macho," and "very male."
  • Stafford also pointed to the TV show, "Turbine Cowboys," which "portrays the building of wind farms as a macho, tough man job." Intriguingly, Stafford related that when Hartman and he "presented this at the wind industry [conference], a lot of people said we don't like that show because it makes wind look unsafe, and we're all about safety here in wind, so they actually did not want to be embracing the show..."
  • Hartman recommended connecting "green" to the military - "using renewable energy to fuel their vehicles when they're fighting abroad, jobs available to veterans when they return home, the number of lives that are lost transporting fuel in war zones....patriotism is very important to connect to renewable energy."
  • Stafford added that some of this information needs to be communicated more effectively: "I don't know if the military has communicated sufficiently that we're here to save lives...People are shocked, they don't know that the fuel convoys are really where all of our casualties are."
  • Another hook Stafford recommended for marketing "green," particular to conservatives, is "the idea of clean energy price stability," that "reducing the risk of price volatility engages conservatives" (financial issues are "part of their belief system"). Then you can tie in renewable energy on those hooks.
  • The central concept of all this is "framing," as well as of "identify[ing] the values of your target audience, what is it that they care about...and then you need to connect your message to those key values."
  • Another, related, recommendation was to "talk about things that are touching peoples' everyday lives" and also to "talk their language."
  • Stafford recommended that a good pushback against fossil fuel claims that clean energy is "not ready for prime time" is to point out success stories like "20% of Iowa's power comes from wind...boy, here's a state that's already getting 20% of its electricity from wind power, that basically shuts down the idea that wind's not ready."
  • Hartman emphasized the importance not just of the marketing message, but of having a messenger with credibility with the target audience.
  • Both authors pointed to their article "Sell the Wind," which described how the slogan "Wind Power Can Fund Schools!" worked extremely well in Utah. Why did it work? Because it "touched what Utahns hold near and dear to their hearts—children. It communicated that property tax revenues from wind farms would support local schools, framing wind power as a solution for funding cash-strapped schools without raising taxes—a feature that appealed to Utahns’ and state legislators’ self-reliant streak. Because of these appeals to the heart, Utahns came to see wind power as a smart market solution."
  • Finally, Hartman and Stafford recommended their paper, "Green Marketing Myopia," which concluded that "successful green products have avoided green marketing myopia by following three important principles: The Three Cs' of consumer value positioning, calibration of consumer knowledge, and credibility of product claims." In short, "effective green marketing requires applying good marketing principles to make green products desirable for consumers."

In my opinion, this is important and useful material, which those involved in clean tech should keep in mind as they go about marketing their products and services. Thanks again to Professors Hartman and Stafford for their time, as well as for their fascinating, highly relevant advice.