How to make green brands press our buttons

Sensemaking / How to make green brands press our buttons

They must tick the price, quality and green boxes. But they need to be desirable too…

06 Sep 2011

They must tick the price, quality and green boxes. But they need to be desirable too…

The doomsayers love those ‘death of the green consumer’ stories. Take the recent New York Times (NYT) splash about sharply falling sales for Green Works cleaning products. But sustainable business analyst Andrew Winston took the NYT to task (in the Harvard Business Review, no less) for drawing conclusions which the US data don’t justify. What about the recession-busting strength of farmers’ markets? The ‘pride of ownership’ Prius brand? What about the niche green cleaning brands actually winning market share? It’s no big news, says Winston, if the initial market excitement has cooled for Green Works, a sub-brand launched three years ago by mainstream giant Clorox. It’s still a successful product, but has found it harder to grow into a bigger brand, because the mass market consumer it targeted “never loved paying extra for green”.

Winston rejects the notion that every green tag could charge a premium. Instead, he sees growing numbers of what he calls “the conflicted consumer” in the aisles of Wal-Mart, or wherever. She (it usually is a she) will respond to green as the third button, alongside price and quality – but she wants all her buttons pressed. “The real story”, Winston says, “is the pursuit of more sustainable products that … create no trade-offs for customers.”

Ecover’s core customers, however, are rather different people. For them, says International Communications Manager Effi Vandevoorde, “our brand values mean more than price”. So, how to keep close enough to the customer base that its hard-won loyalty will hold good, even in tough times?

Her answer? “By aligning the brand with what our customer is doing in her life, connecting with her concerns, making her feel good. She’ll buy our brand if she feels it cares about her, her family, her home – if it’s a brand she wants in her life.”

“When they love you, they really love you. But if they started to hate you, they’d really hate you”

The company has worked hard to win and keep credibility with ‘dark greens’, who buy in to Ecover’s environmental credentials, and its 30-year history of investing in making cleaning products more sustainable. It would be “brand suicide”, says Vandevoorde, to slip up on anything which compromised that. “When they love you, they really love you. But if they started to hate you, they’d really hate you.” Nowadays nothing goes viral faster than consumer hatred, as the scars on several prominent brands bear witness.

Smaller producers can often score in terms of credibility on the green front, and Winston agrees there’s a market niche that accepts this as a trade-off against price. Some are content, too, to stay small. But he’s confident they’d unleash a larger audience by pressing all three buttons.

Here, Vandevoorde is sceptical. “You go to Wal-Mart because you’re looking for a good deal. You’re not really looking for added value”, she says. If a brand like Ecover is going to connect with these busy shoppers in their fast-moving world, it needs to “create desire” around sustainability [see ‘Can labels spark a shift to sustainable behaviour?’]. Backed, of course, by assurances of the highest environmental standards.

Great design is one trigger for desire. Even washing-up liquid, in a beautiful bottle, can tell you it ‘belongs’ in your lovely life. But above all, it’s through social media that today’s communities are talking to each other, informing themselves and each other about their lifestyles, brands and environment. Vandevoorde recognises that this makes for “a far bigger playground”, and there’s no doubt in her mind that Ecover must get out there more.

Interacting with customers is familiar territory. Even in the days of post and phone, Ecover sent them scratch-and-sniff cards so they could choose the new fabric softener scent. But, tellingly, a recent social media campaign in the US wasn’t really about the products. Instead, a Facebook-based community of Ecover customers under 30 picked their 30 ‘most admired’ peers for an awards evening in a Manhattan loft. A classic case of what Forum for the Future Deputy Director Sally Uren has identified as the key to behaviour change [see ‘Winning the persuasion game’]: “associating greener lives with ones that are more pleasurable and satisfying, and which bring us closer to our neighbours and our friends, enjoying the fruits of a shared endeavour”. – Roger East

Ecover is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo credit: carebott / istock

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