Once upon a time, there was a global company that wanted to position itself as a friend of the environment.
So it spent a bunch of money on print and TV advertising which portrayed images of huge green fields, windmills, and solar panels. It even changed its name and tweaked its logo to resemble a bright green sun.
This approach was somewhat successful at first. But slowly, attitudes about green companies began to change. Environmentally-friendly groups wanted less talking and more results when it came to helping the planet. But this company's "green marketing" initiative all but ended with a huge thud in the spring of 2010.
Which company was it? BP.
To be fair, viewpoints about green marketing were already transforming well before the Deepwater Horizon well began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. And it's safe to say that such a catastrophic event would have pummeled even the most eco-friendly of firms. But the BP oil spill helped highlight what the company formerly known as British Petroleum sought to disguise: that the conglomerate's oil and gas revenues accounted for 99% of its bottom line. Such a disparity between image and substance is what many environmental watchdog groups are focusing on today.
The message this sends to businesses large and small is that you can't just pay lip service to green initiatives; you have to back up your words with deeds. So companies who tout their office recycling efforts, install a few fluorescent light bulbs in the break room, or even roll out a couple of so-called "green products" aren't being showered with praise by consumer groups who are looking for green companies. In fact, these companies are being tagged with the term "greenwashers," which can have a negative effect on their public image – or even their bottom line if boycotts are threatened.
So what is an entrepreneur to do?
For starters, business owners should be honest about their environmental efforts. It's okay to promote your office's paperless initiative or mention a corporate tree-planting outing. Just keep it in perspective by not claiming to be the ultimate environmental champion. Consumers know that no business is completely self-sustainable, so if you honestly recount your efforts to be a more responsible corporate citizen, the public will take note.
It's also important to remember that even though green groups get a lot of press, studies show that no more than 20% of consumers list environmental factors as the main reason for their buying decisions. This means that their purchasing habits are mostly decided by traditional differentiators like price, convenience, quality, and value. So any green efforts you do decide to embrace should be coupled with a focus on how your customer will benefit. For instance, if you install solar panels atop your company headquarters, you may pass on the energy savings to your customers in the form of lower prices (and consistently promote this fact).
Finally, your message of environmental friendliness needs to be specific and understandable to your customer. It's no surprise that many consumers are so overwhelmed with green marketing that they are starting to mistrust all claims of eco-friendly products. So if you do get greener, explain to the customer what you are doing and what positive impact it has on the world you share with them.
As green initiatives become mainstream business practices, green marketing may be less of an identifier for companies in the future. But until then, going green can improve the image of your small business – as long as you have the facts to back it up.