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Make Sure Your Green Initiatives Don't Leave You Red-Faced

Incorporating real eco-friendly plans into your company.

The year 2007 will likely be remembered as the year that green marketing went mainstream. Powered by Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, high-profile Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and his film The 11th Hour, and persuasive education of the younger generation in schools, the environment has become a focal point for companies in every industry.

This is a step change from the past, when a company's environmental strategy was commented on in the annual report but was rarely the core focus in a business's strategic planning sessions. Concern over climate change was voiced mainly by those dedicated to the cause or by businesses carving out a specific market niche.

Today, an escalating array of companies is rushing to develop innovations that meet emerging environmental demands and serve as differentiators against the competition.

Sony is breaking convention with its new line of hand-cranked products like the Spin N' Snap camera, the Push Power Play Viewer and the Crank N' Capture Video Camera. Hewlett-Packard is offering postage-paid envelopes for used cartridges. Meraki Outdoor has developed a neighborhood solar-power kit enabling communities to use stored energy from the sun to drive high-speed Internet. Vancity, with its national virtual bank Citizens Bank, has created a Climate Change Mortgage which directs savings generated by marketing virally online (versus traditional channels) to a climate change fund. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows represented the largest purchase of Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper ever used in a single title printing. One of my favorites is Dole, which launched a new line of organic bananas that let you track the origin of each banana via a three-digit 'farm code' on the Dole sticker. The code takes you to doleorganic.com for photos of the farm and details of its organic certification.

Getting green right
Companies are jumping on green marketing because it can deliver myriad benefits, including stronger brand equity, new sales revenue and happier employees. But while the rewards and accolades of eco-innovation can come fast in today's heightened marketplace, so can negative news. When showcasing an eco-friendly message, marketers have to be keenly aware of the potential for backlash if they get it wrong. Missteps are picked up quickly, with media reports and blogs holding marketers who are not true to the tenants of good green marketing to account.

So how do you get it right? Consider these critical factors:

* Carefully define your target group: The green market is very diverse. 'Dark Green' consumers are those already fully committed to seeking out eco-friendly products. Based on recent studies in Canada and the US, they comprise about 15 per cent of the market. Many in this group are willing to pay more for green products. They tend to be fully engaged with every aspect of how a product is brought to market and will be the first to vent their feelings if a company doesn't live up to its promises. The passion and foresight of this influential group is part of the creative spark behind innovative new products; however, other green groups often find them too extreme and don't aspire to their lifestyle.

The emerging 'Light Green' is quite different. In general, they rarely pay more for a green product and are very demanding with regard to quality. Most of them won't go too far in changing their behavior to be more eco-friendly, so the key is to really understand how new ideas and products can fit into their existing purchase patterns. But the prize for marketers is big, with studies putting this group at about 40 per cent of the population and growing.

* Engage your employees: Many are likely already living their own eco-friendly lives and will have interesting ideas.

* Don't sell on green alone: The Light Green market demands that pricing, design, and efficacy are key to its purchase decisions.

* Keep it simple: Most consumers won't be interested in green solutions that are overly complex or time consuming.

* Embrace a 360 view: Include your supply chain in your green approaches. If your suppliers are not following green practices, it can lead to a potential consumer backlash.

* Don't be afraid to take baby steps: But walk the talk. Green consumers are patient and realize it takes time to make revolutionary changes. The key is to live up to your promises as you make them.

* Be specific: Vague eco-friendly promises will be dismissed as trendy.

Be interactive
Finally, keep in mind that consumers want to participate in the message. The green revolution is thriving online and blog communities have sprung up around many of the hot-button environmental issues. Tapping into these communities may result in exciting new ideas.

With more and more opinion leaders sounding the call on the environment, it's clear the tipping point has tipped and, increasingly, green will be the new mainstream.

Andrea Southcott is president of ad agency TBWA/Vancouver (www.tbwa-vancouver.com), a full-service advertising and media planning company. This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail, Canada's largest-circulation national newspaper.

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