Shorter Showers Are Not Awesome: Green marketing goes under the microscope

August 17, 2012 |

The Digest looks at the biofuels brand. Is green still important? What can green brand marketers do to better connect with consumers?

For weeks, industry leaders have been shocked, dismayed and upset over all the negative press — tweets, Wall Street Journal editorials, articles and messaging — over what are supposed to be negative impacts associated with the Renewable Fuel Standard.

There’s not much talk about whether the industry’s messaging has gone horribly wrong. There’s more chat about the overwhelming budgets of opponents in the ranching,food manufacturing, and oil industries and on the environmental left.

Of course, it life were about big budgets, there wouldn’t be upstart products like the iPhone or Facebook. Brand marketing, as it turns out, appears to be more than just a function of budget and “having a good story to tell” – and there’s considerable evidence that the custodians of the overall “biofuels” brand have struggled and failed to sustain a case in the public eye.

Oh, there’s a lot of blame going around – much of it trained on nefarious views held by evildoer political figures. Not as much focus on the people back home who keep electing them. Hmmm.

Well, as we do in Digestville, let’s look at some hard data, and bring in some expertise.

Meet the Shelton Group’s Suzanne Shelton

A thought-leader on all things sustainable – who recently trained her sights on energy and bio-based materials – is Suzanne Shelton, who in recent years has parlayed her considerable body of knowledge on all things sustainable into a thriving Shelton Group marketing practice whose clients include Boeing, Toshiba, J&J, Bayer, Georgia-Pacific, Lowe’s and the USDA – just to name a few.

Her website,, is a treasury of insight on how to reach and communicate with broad audiences on green issues. The Digest caught up with her at the USB Biobased Stakeholder Summit last week in Dearborn, Michigan.

Is green an important factor for consumers?

Here’s the really good news. 70 percent of respondents to her landmark and regular consumer surveys say that green is a very important factor for them in their brand choices. That’s up steadily from 60 percent in 2009, to 64 percent in 2010. “The number has not gone up much this year,” Shelton noted, “but 70 percent is a lot.”

It’s broad, too. 70.8 percent are searching for green products in light bulbs and fixtures, 60.7 percent in home cleaning, 59 percent in laundry and dishwashing, 58 percent in paper, 46 percent in food and beverages and 46 percent in personal care.

But those numbers, Shelton warns, are all on a downward slide. “The issues are always price and performance,” she noted, “when it comes to understanding why people might express an interest in a product but not make a change, or not stay with a green product they have tried.”

How do consumers decide if products are green?

How do consumers decide if a product is green? According to Shelton’s consumer study – 48.8 percent by studying ingredients, 39 percent based on labeling, 31 percent by company reputation – internet research, 3rd party certification an advertising all score in the 20s. “Interestingly,” adds Shelton, “the figure is going up fast for a company’s green reputation. It goes to show, if customers can’t believe in a brand, they won;t believe in the product.”

So let’s look at company reputation – what confers a positive environmental reputation on a corporation?  The #1 attribute is “made in USA” – cited by 21.8 percent, even topping a reputation for recycling (21.5%), making recyclable products (18.2%), removing chemicals of concern, making all-natural products, or creating no chemical waste – which all score in the teens. “That’s a real advantage for you if you are making product here – made at home really matters.”

What do consumers like when they look for green-based product packaging? Recycled is #1, but biodegradable rates #2, made with recycled content is at #3, while being made from renewable resources scores down towards the bottom of the poll (though ahead of “30 percent packaging” claims).

Here’s the really, really good news for the sector. When asked to rank packaging materials in order of sustainability, the #1 factor was biobased material, ahead of wood/cardboard, glass, with aluminum, plastic and steel trailing far behind.

Why aren’t biobased products flying off the shelves?

“So, with all this good news, why aren’t biobased products flying off the shelves? Shelton asks. “It’s simple. The market doesn’t “get” you, doesn’t get the value proposition. Really, they are buying just from performance and cost.”

“Generally, they have no idea of the difference between biodegradable and biobased. 60 percent can’t define sustainability at this point in time. You are going to have to communicate. for now, at a 4th grade level, and your customer will learn more later.”

In her group’s EcoPulse 2011 study, the group found that price and brand were twice as important as all other factors combined in selecting a laundry detergent – that is, more than water conservation, packaging, formula and “sensitivity” attributes like perfume-free attributes or scent.

Energy independence – a message that crosses demographic groupings

“The good news is that energy independence crosses all demographic groupings. The bad news is that people have no idea how much petroleum is in the package.”

“But, even if they know – knowing doesn’t mean doing. Behavior change is needed. It is not just an education issue. 2/3 of consumers say that they are very concerned, aware, educate and care about green. But less than 1/3 do anything about it. You can’t educate or scare them into action.”

Shorter showers are not awesome

“You hear a lot about educating the consumer – “I have to educate them”, that’s what a lot of marketers talk about when they talk about green. Educating can come off as condescending really, really fast.”

“Think of it this way. Half of the population believes that climate change is not man-made, and half won’t change their mind even after you expose them to scary messages. And you can’t spin your way into behavior change, either. When we were working on a water conservation project, there was a lot of discussion about persuading people to take shorter showers because they could be persuaded that shorter showers are awesome.”

“Let me tell you something. Shorter showers are not awesome. You have to wake people up to the moment when they are wasting, and make them uncomfortable about it. The best way to get someone to diet is to show them a picture of themselves,” she said.

“So, how can you help the market see the value proposition and leverage the affinity for biobased?” she asked.

Creating real behavior change

“To create real behavior change,” she answers, “we have to move people from automatic behaviors to conscious choices, make the problem visual, make the problem uncomfortable, and give them a specific, simple action step.”

“First, you have to find your Actives. These are the people who are actively engaged in change. You have to connect them to the real, underlying benefits of biobased they actually care about.”

Shelton warned marketers of biofuels and biobased materials that they need to take greater creative risks. “You have got to be edgy – you have to be willing to be weird and different – if that is what is needed to change viewpoints and behavior.” An example of entertaining, edgy and successful green marketing – a Shelton Group campaign for water conservation (Wasting Water is Weird), here.

Bioskeptics? “Make them feel smart. They will tune out any message you give them about climate change. In fact, it’s a reason for them to disbelieve everything else you say.”

“You have a lot of advantages,” Shelton says. “You have some good, clear messages available to you. The ones that matter? Energy independence, made in the USA, healthier, and saving money. “China is kicking our butt and we don’t like that” is on their minds, and there is a sense of safety in products that are made here.”

The Bottom Line

The point of impact for the industry? Well, that would be, for fuelmakers, the pump.

This week, E85 fuel, at the UGas outlet in Coral Gables, FL, was priced all of 8 cents below the price of unleaded gasoline – $3.51 vs $3.59. That’s about 84 cents per gallon north of the typical differential in Brazil that is known to cause behavior change – and 42 cents below the spread between wholesale gasoline and wholesale ethanol.

The other message about biofuels? You might ask your marketing colleagues – aside from scary labels like “WARNING, this product may contain up to 10 percent ethanol”.

So, price problems and warning labels. Not the sort of messaging that is likely to inspire voters to ensure that only biofuels-friendly folk are elected to posts in DC in order to safeguard the Renewable Fuel Standard.

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