Is There a Right Way to Say “Green?”

Is There a Right Way to Say “Green?”

A new “green wave” in marketing is beginning to swell.

“Going green” was all the rage in marketing circles before the Great Recession diverted everyone’s attention to more immediate concerns, such as keeping our jobs and staying in our homes. Before the housing bubble burst, the marketing industry, which leaps from trend to trend like an action hero on steroids, dove into sustainability to establish competitive advantages.

The overarching question back then was how to sell sustainability. This question was so pertinent that one conference organizer even invited me to speak about green marketing as long as I promised not to talk mention actually going green.

Now, the so-called “green wave” is building again. But it looks a little different this time around.

Marketing and PR folks are learning that applying traditional business marketing models to sustainability doesn’t create a winning formula anymore. Communicating green success requires a new framework.

Consider this: the latest edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer, which is a handy reference tool in the corporate communications business, highlights the public’s dramatic loss of trust in corporate leadership and, more recently, in government.

The number of Americans who think CEOs will act morally in the public interest is at an all time low. So, too, is trust that government officials will act responsibly for the sake of their constituents.

In this environment, merely slapping a green label on yesterday’s business practices, or tweaking things just enough to catch the green wave is very, very risky.

People are justifiably wary, and they expect more.

I sat down with IABC executive editor Natasha Nicholson recently to discuss how businesses can talk about sustainability more effectively.

First and foremost, it is important for businesses to consider whether sustainability is a key differentiator to their stakeholders, including local communities, NGOs, shareholders and customers.
This might sound a little detached from the urgency of environmental issues, but when marketers think about what to say about their firms, they are actually figuring out how important any given issue is to their constituents. Let’s face it—we’re all overloaded, and this makes communications a highly competitive proposition. No company wants to waste its time and resources on themes that nobody is going to listen to.

So, in order for businesses to engage with the public on climate change and sustainability, they need to establish how deeply their hearts or their bank accounts are invested. Is sustainability part of the company’s mission? Is it a core aspect of the brand? Would the brand’s strength and sales suffer if the company never mentioned a sustainable future?

This matters because making an issue out of responsible performance opens the door to extra scrutiny. Today, every smart phone has a camera, and anyone—from activists to employees—can broadcast their impressions and interpretations using social media.

And every Facebook post or YouTube video has the potential to go viral.

With this in mind, it’s important to avoid overpromising and, equally becoming too cautious.

Overpromising, which is also known as “greenwashing” can trigger a backlash and a potential threat to a company’s credibility. On the other hand, playing it safe by hiding sustainability efforts is a lost opportunity to promote the business and—importantly—to promote the issue.

A little acknowledged truth is that the more we talk about sustainability, the more deeply it takes hold in our culture, expectations and values. Marketers serve an important social function here when they pitch responsible green accomplishments.

We need to see more green marketing, not less.

The challenge is doing it well. The most successful green companies are honest about their aspirations and achievements, as well as their limitations. Communications are often slightly understated and authentic, acknowledging progress, giving credit to partners, enlisting third party verification, and being forthright about how long the green road really is.

Businesses are important social institutions. Any credible solution to the climate crisis must employ their good work.

Likewise, marketing professionals can move the issue forward by learning how to talk about sustainability to their customers.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo courtesy of Images_of_Money via creative commons license.

About the Author

Tom is founder and CEO of Bowman Change, Inc., a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations reap the benefits of working with purpose—making social issues and environmental change central to their missions.