[This is the first in a series of five guest posts looking at the importance of brand strategy and effective marketing for green and ethical businesses]
Organic jeans look just like regular jeans. Fair Trade, Shade Grown coffee can taste just like conventional coffee. FSC-certified wood looks exactly like wood that's been poached from the rain forest. Unless you're an eye witness or a direct victim, crimes against the environment take place out of sight, out of mind. Shirts hang from racks in America, while the sweatshops that created them are half a world and tons of emissions away. The sales racked up by businesses-as-usual are dependent on withholding information, not revealing it. Paul McCartney once said that "if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian." It's the same principle for most conventional products. Pesticides, particulate pollution, toxic runoff, industrial waste and shoddy labor practices are necessary to create most things -- but to actually sell the stuff, it's best to keep the public unaware of such things. The environmental sins of conventional businesses are invisible — unfortunately, so are many of the positive actions of good-for-the-world businesses.
As an environmentalist, and as a guy who leads a good-for-the-world branding agency, I suggest that treehugging businesses should become the most kickass marketers on the planet. Brand communication is a critical way to change the equation, and balance it in favor of responsibility over expediency, and in favor of products created with moral consideration as opposed to just cheap goods. Here's some thoughts on how to do it.
An example I like to use is the sneaker industry pre and post the rise of Nike. Before Nike, serious athletic shoes were sold based on tangible utility -- you actually used them to run in. Then Nike came along and transformed the category by selling their product via self-actualization, instantaneously making itself relevant to everyone, not just runners. "Just do it" meant something to everyone. Nike's competition followed suit and the athletic sector soon became the most effectively marketed of all product categories -- to the extent that I'll bet all the non-organic tea in China that 99% of everyone in the Western World (even No Impact Man!) owns at least one item sold under the banner of Nike, Adidas, Puma, FILA or Reebok (disclosure: in my previous professional existence, large swathes of my time were devoted to branding of Puma, FILA and Reebok).
Today, Nike's continued growth largely depends on its ability to communicate technologies that are not visible — and to make them relevant to consumers in ways that are both emotional and utilitarian. Our market is similar. The key points of difference that set "green" or otherwise mission-driven companies apart from their conventional competitors require communication. Indeed — unless principled actions are turned into a brand asset, they put your company at a competitive disadvantage simply because being sustainable in a non-sustainable world is expensive. By openly and transparently telling the story behind our products and services, we can flip the equation, and turn responsible business practice into a competitive advantage. Our conventional business competitors can't tell their full story. We can. The truth is our best tool. And we need to use it consummately, consistently and artfully.
This post is the first of 5 that will focus on the marketing advantages of businesses that care as much about the planet as profits. Succeeding posts will address Relevance and Personality; Credibility and Authenticity; Being More Than Green; and Theory and Practice.
Jerry Stifelman is founder and creative director of The Change, a brand-strategy and design agency that works exclusively with companies and organizations that make the world more sustainable, equitable or authentic.
[Disclosure: This guest post was arranged through TreeHugger writer Sami Grover, who also works for The Change as the company's Director of Sustainability and Media Liaison]