How to Win Green Friends and Influence People

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Earth Day is behind us and I’m digging out of my cluttered digital desktop to uncover the nuggets of value that have been hidden amid the countless pitches and come-ons typical of April’s environmental hoopla. Among those nuggets: three reports and guidebooks on … making green pitches and come-ons.

Well, that’s a little harsh. The three documents described below all focus on marketing, branding, and communications — and how to ensure that all three are aligned with a company’s actual commitments and performance. Each of these comes from a firm with services to sell, but within that context, each provides useful insights and case studies.

From Greenwash to Great: A Practical Guide to Great Green Marketing (without the Greenwash), whose clunky by alliterative title belies a common-sense approach to corporate green storytelling. The report (download – PDF) comes from OgilvyEarth, the sustainability practice of Ogilvy & Mather, the global advertising and marketing firm. It begins with some sensational statements — "Greenwash, it seems, has reached epidemic proportions," is typical — though that’s not surprising from a venerable Madison Avenue message machine. I’ve often taken issue with those who make the case that greenwashing is an insidious threat to our planet (see here and here, for example). Given the significant measures companies are taking for which they’re not given credit, they deserve a little slack.

Still, accuracy, honesty, and transparency in marketing, including green marketing, is critical: It helps build trust and reduce cynicism, of which there is more than a little when it comes to viewing companies as environmentally responsible. And so Ogilvy’s advice and examples are welcome, especially given their provenance. This easy-to-peruse, 22-page guide offers nine key principles of green marketing, each including a real-world example (presumably created by Ogilvy’s shop, though this isn’t stated). Most of these examples are well known by those who follow this field — GE’s ecomagination, Clorox’s Green Works, Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips, Nike’s Considered — but even veterans will likely find a worthy tip or two here.

An excerpt:

Many marketers go wrong by assuming that a smallish story that already exists or a minor change already in the works will do. Usually it won’t. New messages with a couple of green buzzwords won’t work either. Sustainability is about driving substantial and authentic change in products and processes up and down the value chain. [Ogilvy advisor] Jeunesse Park confirms, "Those taking the high ground and ensuring that their businesses and processes have a low environmental footprint will have instant market advantage."

But driving this kind of significant operational change through the organization takes homework, time and tenacity. It means getting better acquainted with obscure corners of your organization. It means seeking expert third-party advice. It means ensuring your employees understand the tenets of sustainability and in what ways the product is green; give them a part to play in realizing the promise of the product. If you don’t invest the resources to build a substantial story, you will almost certainly find yourself greenwashing. If you have taken the time to build a robust and authentic foundation, getting beyond greenwash to great sustainability-oriented marketing becomes much easier.

Communicating Corporate Responsibility comes from another Ogilvy appendage, Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, and is based on a workshop led by Professor David Grayson at Business in Society’s annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) event in Brussels. Grayson is the Doughty Professor of Corporate Responsibility and Director of the Doughty Centre at the Cranfield School of Management UK.

But don’t let the professorial nature of this sway you. It’s a very readable document (download – PDF), filled with insight and inspiration. One favorite part focused on a keen interest of mine: corporate storytelling — specifically, the role of storytelling in communicating about company sustainability commitment and performance. It describes the "story spiral," in which you seed stories in the marketplace, turn stakeholders into storytellers on your behalf, and amplify the stories you hear and help others to do so, too. There’s also a concise section on aligning corporate responsibility with company values, and another on how all this translates in a digital, social media world. Much of it is Communications 101, though seen through a CSR lens.

An excerpt:

Keeping communications consistent as well as relevant to the business is one of the best ways to ensure credibility. But increasingly, credibility is derived not only from authentic and relevant actions, and the communications around those, but also from the day-to-day actions that make or break a company’s image and reputation. Successful brands are built over time as a product or service delivers against its brand promise. Trust is also built over time, and credibility is one of its most valuable by-products. You only have to look at companies that have suffered a breakdown in trust due to failures in product safety, labour rights, ethical sourcing or responsible marketing to understand that credible communications are key to restoring and retaining public confidence.

Mapping the Future of Green Innovation comes from Maddock Douglas, an Illinois-based consultancy focusing on innovation. Its MapChange study tracks both the climate change actions of more than 90 leading U.S. corporations and consumer perception of those actions. (Much of the data came from company research conducted by Climate Counts, a nonprofit group on whose board I sit.) The study (download – PDF) illustrates that a significant disparity exists between the actual sustainable activity of brands and consumers’ perception of sustainable activity of those brands.

The report plots companies in various sectors on a classic 2×2 diagram, showing which companies are "Bashfuls" (those not getting the credit they deserve for their sustainability commitment and performance), "Laggards" (those neither getting nor deserving credit), "Lucky" (those getting more credit than they deserve), and "Leaders" (those getting deserved credit). There are 2×2 diagrams for several sectors, including airlines, banks, electronics, food and beverage, hotels, household goods, internet/software/media, restaurants, and shipping companies.

The report ends with the 5 "C’s" of sustainability branding, which I’ll let you wade through to see how much they differ from the classic 5 "P’s" of marketing.

An excerpt:

Can your next drink or snack really change the world? Maybe not, but the company that makes it certainly could. With tremendous distribution networks, packaging needs and consumer demand, these companies have a large climate footprint as a baseline and a lot of room to improve.

According to the MapChange Study, General Mills has a perceived sustainability score of 82 — but the brand’s actual score is 49. We think that’s a pretty big difference. Currently, that gap doesn’t seem to be hurting their numbers — or the numbers of other industry-leading brands. For example, General Mills was named a top corporate citizen by Corporate Responsibility Magazine in seven responsibility categories with a lower-weighted emphasis on green. However, the short-lived advantage of a strong, but shallow green perception, alone, will likely only last so long. We believe it is not what large companies stand to gain — but what they stand to lose that’s important.

Got all that? As you well know, communicating and marketing effectively in today’s wired and cynical world will take more than all the tips and insights these three reports together can muster. But these are a start, some grist for making next year’s round of Earth Day promo that much more effective.

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