One of the things we’re focusing on at the new agency is sustainability. We’re working on a fascinating project for a major marketer that I can’t wait to develop. But we’re quite wary of the fact that this is a complex territory with quickly and constantly shifting landscape. And that it requires doing marketing a lot differently than most of us are used to (for a great dive into how and why, read John Grant‘s excellent new book The Green Marketing Manifesto – it’s essential reading if you’re working in this space). I’ve been trying to be green-ish in my personal life for a while, but professionally I’m only 3 weeks into to this space, so I don’t know anything at all yet. But I’m trying to note my newbie observations. And what I’ve been noticing so far is that marketing in the green space seems to require two things:
- Don’t forget everything you know about marketing.
- Forget everything you know about marketing.
When I look at a lot of green marketing, I was struck by the fact that it seems like people had thrown basic marketing 101 lessons out the door. We spend our careers learning how to set clear objectives for communication, properly target, find a personal benefit, and to make things interesting. But as soon as many people get into the green space, they seem to throw that all out the window. A lot of the communication is just shouting about what companies are doing, rather than making it clear why this is personally relevant to me (thus falling into the old “what you make, rather than what I buy” trap). There’s a lot of cliched imagery (it seems every print ad features a tree and a smiling child). They seem to treat the “green” audience like it’s one big undifferentiated lump of people. And they don’t seem to have clear objectives about why they’re communicating and how it will affect their business.
I wonder if it’s that after thinking about dull undifferentiated things like washing powder and orange juice for years, marketers are so excited to finally have something meaningful to say that they think they don’t have to be marketers anymore?
But at the same time as you need to remember to start with your marketing fundamentals (objectives, strategy, targeting, insights) it seems you also need to forget everything else you know about marketing. The actual communication needs to be handled differently, and carefully. As John points out, marketing traditionally is about portraying something in its best possible light and creatively bending the truth (last time I checked, drinking a Coke doesn’t actually make you gleeful). And in most categories people let it slide because they understand the way advertising works, and because it’s not something they care to think that much about.
Once you get into the sustainability space, you need to take the opposite approach. If you bend the truth, or if you focus on only your best practices while obscuring your weak points, you’ll get killed. These are issues that people are passionate about (with good cause – it’s basically turning into a life or death issue) and on which they are skeptical about corporate agendas. People will analyze your statements and promises with a microscope and are waiting for you to overstep or misstep. Also, marketing generally tries to simplify things into single messages with easily digestible soundbites and taglines. But given the complexity in this space, simplification easily becomes oversimplification which can seem minimizing, ill-informed, and patronizing. Throw in as well that many standard marketing practices are actually very bad for the environment (flying dozens of people halfway around the world for meetings and shoots, paper-intensive mail pieces). Has anybody ever calculated the carbon footprint of a typical TV shoot?
So big, glossy, glamorous advertising messages can easily (and usually) backfire. Instead of focusing on your strengths and achievements, you really have to not step beyond your weakest point and pretend to be your biggest skeptic when thinking about things. Instead of trumpeting your awesome superiority, you have to be humble and understated. Because it’s not about looking green, it’s about actually being green and showing you’re making an effort.
I’m finding it a delicate balancing act learning which of the “how to do stuff” parts of my brain to hold onto and which to discard. It’s tremendously exciting but really challenging stuff. Then again, maybe I’m just slow.