Staying Ahead in Green Business: What Makes You Special?
Image credits: Denbompa and MedicMedia
Selling Green Products vs Selling YOUR Green Products
On the TV show, "Mad Men," ad man Don Draper saves Lucky Strike cigarette account by ignoring research about cigarettes causing disease (he literally throws it in the trash) and instead playing up the brand's "Toasted Tobacco" flavor. But wait, what does this have to do with green branding? In the development of any brand, there is always a tension between selling the category (e.g., organic vegetables are better for the planet) vs. selling against the category (e.g., our organic vegetables taste better than other organic vegetables). This is especially relevant in the green world because sustainability ends up generating new market categories.
When Toyota launched the Prius, it essentially created the good-for-the-planet automotive category. This gave them the opportunity to focus on general messaging — rather than focus on the specifics of the Prius' design, they instead focused on the general idea of driving a car that was better for the earth. The key points in their branding would have been true for all hybrids, but at that time there weren't any other hybrids (yes, Honda also had the Insight, but was investing very little in communications). Seventh Generation was able to do something similar for green cleaning products. And Aubrey was in this position with regard to the natural personal care category.
There's lots of advantages to positioning your brand to take broad ownership of your category. It sets you up to gain customers that are driven to the category by your competitors and media coverage. It provides opportunity for big, dramatic messaging (i.e., you get to talk more about saving the planet and less about horsepower and warantees).
There is a downside, however. Namely, it leaves you vulnerable to competition, because it tends to make your brand less proprietary. Due to its distinctive futuristic design and high market penetration, the Prius continues to lead its category (this success also has something to do with the utter lack of imagination on the part of their competition).
Examples of companies that seem to be more challenged include Equal Exchange and Aubrey personal care. Both companies are true pioneers in their respective categories and both continue to lead in terms of quality and integrity. Yet since both brands have done little to substantively set their brands apart within their category, they are both highly vulnerable to losing market share.
How to solve this? It's what I call the-have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy. If you're launching a new green brand that is establishing a new category rather than joining a mature one, develop a distinctive personality at the same time you're educating people about their environmentally sensible options. The electric scooter category is a good example in that it's relatively new without an established brand leader, thus creating the opportunity for a brand to educate consumers about the overall merits of electric scootership. If a brand came out and established a quirky retro personality or a sleek, minimalist design ethic or a gritty rock and roll personality, then it would have something that continues to rise above the surface as the category matures and populates.
What about brands that didn't do this when they started out? How can they manage sustaining leadership while facing increasing competition. The temptation is to throw money at the problem by hiring bigger, slicker agencies. Yet usually this merely results in better design, as opposed to genuine brand distinction. Instead, I suggest maximizing your assets — which is the essence of branding, as opposed to mere marketing.
To go back to our previous examples, Equal Exchange, is not a standard corporation, it's a worker-owned cooperative. Instead of communicating like a corporation, they could communicate like a cooperative. Their copy can be written in a more down-to-earth way displaying the depth conviction unique to a company of "owners." They can juxtapose photos of their employees at work alongside those of farmers, emphasizing that both are working in cooperative structures. They can let employees relate messages in their own words with their own bylines. In doing so, they could convey that they live the principles of Fair Trade more deeply than the competition. In doing so, they would offer customers something deeper and more substantive to support with their money.
Aubrey is another amazing company. They are still led by a single visionary, Aubrey Hampton. All their products are mixed by hand. And everything is shipped fresh, nothing is warehoused. Yet to learn these facts, you have to prowl through their website, something few customers will do. Ultimately, personal care products are an on-the-shelf proposition. The typical customer isn't going to do research.
Yes, I've probably gone on too much about those specific examples. But that's the idea. If it's YOUR company, you should already be aware of your unique assets. So even if you're telling a big story of how buying something like your product will help the earth, don't forget to integrate the elements that make your company and your products special. The world really is getting greener -- which means competition is coming, even if it's not there yet.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change - a brand creation and design agency that works with sustainable businesses and non-profits.
More from Jerry Stifelman on Green Branding and Marketing
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Transparency for Green Brands: To Biodegrade or Not?
Green Branding for Major Corporations
Green Branding: Free Your Inner Activist, Business Will Follow
Green Branding: Why Originality Matters
Branding for Non-profits: Why It's Important
Rebirth of the Producer
Greenhushing Doesn't Help Anyone: Why Green Business Should Speak Up
Reality vs. Perception: On Being Born With a Green Spoon in Your Mouth
The Virtue of Humility: Why Coke's Ethical Store Failed
Green Branding and Marketing: Who's Out in Front?
Be More Than Green
Authenticity: Get it Free With Your Commitment to Preserve the Earth
Just Because It Saves the World, That Doesn't Make it Popular
The Planet Wants You to Market Really Well