Is the marketing department blocking your green ambitions?

James Murray wonders whether marketeers are guilty of ignoring green opportunities

Back in 2000, an album by electronica musician and producer Moby secured the dubious distinction of becoming the first to see every single track licensed for use in adverts, TV shows or movies.

There was a flurry of commentary at the time around the phenomenon, with critics divided as to whether the unprecedented licensing of Play represented the future or the death of modern music.

There were also numerous attempts to explain why the album had proved so popular with advertising and marketing execs, some of whom touched on its modern reworking of timeless samples, others arguing that it spoke to an era of chilled out consumerism, but most hinting at the fact that the album was simply a good soundtrack for communications gurus to put on when they were coming down after a night out partying.

Either way, Moby inadvertently highlighted the way in which advertising and communications professionals can become prone to group-think, and how the perceptions of a relatively small number of people can have a huge social and economic impact. It certainly had a huge impact for Moby: the album sold over 10 million copies, more than any other album of its genre, and turned the unlikely figure of a former techno nerd into a global star.

For businesses the problem comes when this marketing group-think is deployed not to advance a product or cause, but to block it. Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening to many admirable green business initiatives.

I was speaking the other week to one of the UK’s leading green business consultants and he was firmly of the opinion that the marketing department is the last unreconstructed corporate opponent of sustainability.

The chief executive increasingly ‘gets it’, as they understand the threat posed by climate risks and the opportunity presented by the growing low carbon economy. The finance and operations departments tend to ‘get it’, as green initiatives often deliver significant long-term efficiencies and financial savings. The sales and innovation hubs within a business ‘get it’, as they understand that green products are usually better designed and can create a great sales story. But, with a few notable exceptions, marketing departments are often sceptical about the value of green claims and in some cases downright hostile to sustainability initiatives.

I was reminded of this conversation yesterday at the launch of Sky’s Sustainable Generation report, where senior executives bemoaned the way in which businesses are strangely reluctant to talk about the ‘good things that we do’ and promote the sustainability values that increasingly define them.

There are, of course, plenty of exceptions that prove the rule. Sky, for one, is investing heavily in promoting its increasingly impressive green credentials, while companies such as M&S, Unilever, B&Q, Toyota and General Electric have all emerged in recent years as highly visible and vocal advocates of a new kind of green business. Moreover, there are countless successful startups that make green commitments a central component of marketing and branding.

But the reason these examples are so well worn is that they are few and far between. I’d argue that the hypothesis stands up. There are large numbers of firms out there that are making good progress at cutting carbon emissions and are genuinely committed to developing more sustainable business models, but are reluctant to make much of a noise about it beyond the occasional press release. There is an apparent unwillingness to put the same degree of marketing and advertising muscle behind green products and issues as is thrown behind other aspects of a company’s brand.

The reason for this must lie in the marketing department. The key question is why so few businesses are willing to talk about their environmental records.

If we are being slightly mean-spirited we could argue that the inhabitants of advertising, marketing and PR departments are not a natural green constituency. It is a hugely unfair clichéd generalisation, but are executives who are trained to enjoy and understand the latest fashion, music and trends likely to spend time grappling with the daunting scientific and economic issues that characterise sustainability? They do not care that much about green issues, and they think their customers don’t either.

Leaving departmental stereotypes aside, where marketing and advertising teams have engaged with green issues they have often been scared off by the spectre of ‘greenwash’.

There is understandable concern that, regardless of whether or not a company has an effective green strategy, there are reputation risks attached to making environmental performance a key component of a marketing campaign. No one wants to be labelled a hypocrite and, unless a company has genuinely robust green credentials and products, they are risking that charge.

However, there are signs that ‘greenwash’ is on the wane. This might be tempting fate but, while some firms continue to make dubious claims, there has not been a big ‘greenwash’ scandal in quite a while. Businesses that do choose to market green products and services increasingly understand the communications guidelines they have to stick to in order to avoid charges of ‘greenwash’, while the environmental NGOs that used to attack companies for making exaggerated green claims are increasingly willing to work with firms to improve performance and promote genuine green strategies.

The final and most significant reason behind the marketing department’s hostility to green messaging comes in the form of evidence that their assumptions might be right: some customers just aren’t interested in environmental issues.

Ever since the economic crisis struck there has been an assumption by many commentators that the environment is no longer a major worry for consumers who are now much more concerned with short-term issues. This school of thought appeared to be borne out today with the release of the latest British Social Attitudes study showing that interest in environmental issues has fallen.

The survey found that the proportion of people thinking scientists are overstating climate change threats rose from 24 per cent in 2000 to 37 per cent a decade later, while the proportion stating that they would pay ‘much higher prices’ for ‘the sake of the environment’ fell from 43 per cent to 26 per cent.

Are the sceptical marketeers right? Are environmental issues a turn off for customers? Well, of course they are in certain circumstances. But any communications professional assuming that green marketing is a non-starter, that people just aren’t interested in environmental issues, is guilty of a gross simplification.

Firstly, the Social Attitudes survey reveals a none too surprising recession (and Daily Mail) induced drop in the level of environmental concern. But spin the emphasis on the statistics around and the picture is not actually that bleak. Two thirds of people still accept climate change warnings at face value, significantly more people are recycling, and remarkably over a quarter of people are willing to pay ‘much higher prices’ on environmental grounds. Personally, I’m pretty reluctant to pay ‘much higher prices’ for anything right now, which suggests that there is still a fairly robust group of green consumers out there.

This fact is reinforced by the 4.3 per cent expansion of the market for green goods and services last year and plenty of other surveys that have asked slightly different questions and revealed that public interest in green goods and services remains surprisingly solid. For example, a recent survey of consumer habits from the Carbon Trust found that the proportion of shoppers willing to shun products without carbon labels has doubled from 22 per cent to 45 per cent in the past year. Countless other green firms have undertaken workshops and market research which has proved that the right sort of environmental messaging can resonate.

In addition to there being a sizable green consumer market for marketing departments to target, companies that claim to be serious about building a more sustainable economy have an educational role to play. Those firms now investing billions in developing low carbon technologies and infrastructure have to overturn any resistance in the marketing department and mobilise campaigns that educate and prepare the market for this new generation of products. Without this marketing groundwork, efforts to push green goods such as fuel efficient cars or Green Deal efficiency makeovers will fall flat.

Finally, even if consumers are less overtly interested in green products, they are interested in better products. A lot has been written about the flight to quality experienced during recessions, just as analysts have also identified the austerity appeal of products that save you money.

Whether it is insulation, solar panels or fuel efficient cars, green goods and services play into these demands, and savvy marketing departments should not be dismissing green messaging as irrelevant but should be working hard to find new and compelling ways to promote products that customers want and need.

Thankfully, marketing group-think can be broken eventually. Just look at the rather less impressive sales of Moby’s follow up albums.

By: James Murray

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