“Good Green” with William Brent


The perils of misleading consumers into thinking your product or service is green (when it’s not) are well-documented. It seems the rise in popularity of green products and environmentally-friendly marketing has been paralleled with growing consumer skepticism, and a distrust of green claims by mainstream and emerging companies alike.

Navigating that minefield is no easy task, but William Brent appears up for the challenge. Brent is senior vice president of Weber Shandwick‘s CleanTech practice, based in Seattle, where he manages a portfolio of clients focused on lessening the impact we have on the world around us.

I asked William to talk about green marketing, what it really means, and what lessons we’ve learned so far about how to do it well.

How would you define “green marketing?”
It depends how you mean it. The most literal interpretation would be as greening the processes of your company’s marketing activities, such as making your direct mail more green (i.e. using recycled paper products, or reducing the size of marketing collateral to use less resources). Or doing a calculation on how much electricity your online ads use and offsetting them.

The other, probably more generally understood way to look at it would be – to put a green spin on your products when marketing them. But that’s a recipe for disaster if your products aren’t actually green. The worst thing a marketer can do is push a product as green when its not.

Ultimately, just as with any marketing, your position has to be defensible and your business and products have to deliver on whatever you’re promising. It’s not reinventing the wheel and many of the general rules of marketing apply.

How do green marketing strategies differ from traditional marketing? What’s its value, and how do you measure it?
I would argue that the strategies don’t differ considerably. Because its an area that tends to bring out strong emotional responses, and therefore increased scrutiny, the only area of strategy that’s different, if you can call it that, is the need to be even more sure that you have thought through the entire supply chain/life cycle of the product and your business.

So in that sense, your marketing has to be reflected in your overall business operational processes, which makes green marketing different because it has to be fundamentally aligned to business practices.

How would you describe consumer interest in sustainability right now? Have consumers, in general, moved from awareness to action? If not, what will drive that?
There is a palette of green in the consumer world. You have the “dark green” consumer, all the way to the “light green” consumer, and every shade in between.

You also have the “green curious”, who are still not quite green but interested in learning. Awareness is growing across the spectrum, but there has been a lack of good information about how consumers can easily do something meaningful and not disrupt their lives too much.

Gratefully there are a lot of things that consumers can do today that have a big impact but don’t cause huge behavioral changes (the kiss of death). In part I think there is a generational gap and geographical gap when talking about drivers. I see a lot of bottom up change when it comes to generations. Kids influencing their parents, and parents in turn influencing their parents.

Then there’s the usual dynamic of the two coasts leading, and then acting as a vice grip that squeezes the central part of the country. Ultimately, the recipe for success to create consumer action is providing monetary value (cost savings) without an increase in cost and without requiring a too fundamental change in behavior.

Can brands execute green marketing without making sustainable changes to their products and business practices, and get away with it?
Nope. Certainly, not beyond the short-term.

It wouldn’t look very good if a forestry company was reducing its internal paper use, or putting solar panels on the roof of its headquarters while still clear-cutting old growth forest. As someone worked or lived in China for 15 years, I still love to bring out the occasional idiom. As the Chinese say, a butcher does not want to be caught “Hanging a lamb’s head but selling dog meat”.

A new client comes to you and wants to “green” their marketing. What do you recommend?
First, if you haven’t done an audit on your corporate marketing practices and identified ways to make them more green, I would recommend doing that.

Second, if you want to market brand, product, service or whatever as green, make sure they live up to the hype. If they don’t meet an acceptable level on the green meter, and you’re serious, you will have to retool, in which case you are not talking about marketing, but operation and then it’s the CEO/COO, not the CMO. Having a reputable third party to assist in this transition is critical for success, both internally and externally.