Why green product brands fail

The Guardian recently published an excellent article on Why Green Brands are Failing to Capture Public Attention.

The answer is that environmental/social consciousness is only one part of what are much broader and more complex cultural shifts. Picking out this trend in isolation and trying to build brands around it using traditional marketing paradigms has a very low likelihood of success…

Most green branding efforts do not fail because of “lack of consumer demand” – as many have now taken to stating. They fail because the branding efforts are superficial, not grounded in the complexity of current cultural change and end up sending messages that are often the opposite of those intended.

I agree with much of what’s written in the article, especially the observation that there may be plenty of demand that marketers just haven’t figured out how to capture. However, I’d submit that green brands fail precisely because companies have neglected to use traditional marketing paradigms for developing new products. Let’s look at two examples: Clorox Green Works and Nike’s Considered.

Why Green Works Failed: Segmentation 

Now personally, I don’t consider Green Works a failure. As one of the first green brands from a mass-market manufacturer, they demonstrated that there is, in fact, a market for green products outside of Whole Foods. However, after an initial run of success (capturing over 40% share of natural cleaning products in just a year after launch) the brand hit a plateau. While this is in part due to the recession and lack of consumer willingness to pay more, I’d suggest that a good part of this is due to lack of understanding consumer segments.

In our cleaning products research in 2009, 67% of consumers said they were interested in seeking out sustainable cleaning products. While that group includes the bright greens who often shop at Whole Foods, nearly half was represented by a rather large segment that we call Laggards (representing 1 out of 4 consumers nationwide) for whom we found a negative association of green attributes to purchase and loyalty. This group resonates with practical benefits like less toxins and waste, but rejects any typical sustainability concepts and language like “green.” See where I’m headed with this?

Clorox capped their own growth by chopping off both ends of the consumer spectrum.

  • Using insider language and higher prices turned off mass-market consumers. 
    • Clorox Green Works is designed to appeal to a mass-market shopper, but a large percentage of those who frequent mass-market channels are likely turned off by the name. And they’re definitely not willing to pay more for a “nice to have” benefit.
  • Yet they lacked credibility and distribution with bright greens.
    • To be fair, Green Works was never designed for the bright green buyer. But with a name, pricing and brand positioning geared to green buyers, we see a fundamental mismatch.

Lessons learned:

  • To reach the mass-market consumer, don’t use words like green or eco in the name or marketing. Keep the focus on what everyone cares about, which is what made your brand successful in the first place, but strategically use options like an ingredient brand (like P&G’s Future Friendly) or subtle language or experiential cues to capture values-based buyers.
  • Make sure your parent company can build credibility for the product, not detract from it.
  • Don’t charge more for green benefits. You CAN charge more for other benefits (like Method’s design approach) and bake the additional R&D cost into the higher margins captured for creating a higher-value product.

Why Nike’s Considered Line Failed: Brand extendibility

An article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek explains how Nike made the strategic decision to avoid customer-facing sustainability initiatives:

The company launched its first line of environmentally friendly shoes, called “Considered,” in 2005. It had high hopes for a walking boot, made with brown hemp fibers, that looked obviously earthy. Critics called the $110 shoes “Air Hobbits” because of their forest-dweller feel and took Nike to task for a design that detracted from its high-tech image. The boots didn’t sell well, and within a year were taken off the shelves. The lesson for Nike was that its green innovations should continue, but its customers shouldn’t be able to tell.

As I observed in a previous post, this is a brand extendibility issue, not a sustainability issue. They couldn’t have tried harder to fail. “Customers failed to give Nike permission for a shoe that didn’t align with its performance image. A forest dweller shoe is more in alignment with Ecco, not Nike; this is a classic brand extendibility failure that likely had nothing to do with sustainability. If Nike had launched a sustainable performance shoe brand, the results may have been very different. And who knows, maybe not. The lesson for Nike and other brands is to invest in knowing exactly where customers give permission and where they don’t.”

Lessons learned:

  • Know thy customer, and keep the focus on why they buy your brand. But also understand what percentage of your current customer base resonates with values-based products so that you can retain and grow that segment.
  • YOu can also leverage those traditional marketing paradigms of targeting, direct and personalized marketing; these should enable you to capture the values-based segment without turning off those who don’t care as much. Nike could be promoting Flyknit shoes in targeted sites and publications that reach eco- or socially conscious customers.

 

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One Response to “Why green product brands fail”

  1. Americans in particular are an interesting consumer group. The common sense of an agenda such as that of the 'green industry' to promote growth in society and better/smarter living, instead of being supported by the markets around it, has to fight against the status quo. The 'sell' has to be appealing, and in the zeal for appeal, it is easy to lose touch with the agenda sometimes. And all too often, organizations just put the ol' spit-shine on their green initiatives, but have no corporate mandate or mission to promote their 'green' efforts toward being a sustainable societal change agent. Green initiatives have to graduate to documented sustainable practices in order to be taken seriously and to pass muster in the marketplace, otherwise 'green' just becomes more noise out there in the consumer fish bowl.

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