Green marketing: success starts at home for the brand – and the marketer

By Willem Steenkamp, senior writer and editor at Flow Communications

Marketing can be a cynical, cutthroat business; ask anyone who’s done it. But when it’s authentic and it makes the world a better place, it’s at its very best.

Green marketing is a case in point. A concept that first appeared in the 1970s but only began gaining traction in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s become a very powerful way for businesses to succeed. When it’s done well, that is.

While it’s a fairly slippery concept to define, green marketing is in essence the selling of a product that has a perceived environmental benefit. This includes how the product is sourced, modified, packaged, distributed and advertised; and it is this last point that we will explore here.

Green marketing challenges existing notions of marketing, in the face of our environmental and social realities. As concern over climate change grows and individuals become more attuned to how they consume, sustainability is increasingly important in their purchasing decisions, and they will choose “green(er)” brands.

In saying that it is concerned about our world and our future, a company is telling its customers that it shares their values. The customers develop emotional loyalty to that brand; they come to love it. What the brand must then do is convert that emotional loyalty into action, by prioritising their shared values.

This goes way beyond loyalty programmes and shopper points. In effect, brands must bare their hearts to their customers, and show how they are creating a better environment and a more sustainable future through their activities; they must derive environmental and social dividends, as well as financial ones.

A stellar example is the clothing brand Patagonia. More than most brands (in any industry), Patagonia has environmentalism and sustainability baked into its DNA – to the extent that its message seems at first to be counterintuitive: “The more you know, the less you need.” That’s a startling approach in our capitalist, more-is-more world of commerce.

In encouraging consumers to consume more responsibly, Patagonia is transparent about its sourcing and production; it shows customers how to care better for their garments and be better consumers; it promotes recycling and upcycling; and it even advocates for green activism. Its business is thus founded not on more and more unsustainable consumption (and thus unsustainable profits), but rather on better consumption.

The Body Shop, the beauty brand, provides another great example – in an industry notorious for animal testing and using harmful chemicals. While the brand took a stand against animal testing in 1989 already (a trailblazing move at the time), in 2023 it succeeded in having all of its product ingredients – more than 4 000 of them – certified vegan. That means that not one is derived from, or tested on, animals.

This goes way beyond mere marketing. The Body Shop has taken a fundamental stand on how it does what it does; perhaps more importantly, it shows a company actively becoming greener and greener. It’s not just continuing to ride on its 35-year-old declaration to be against animal testing.

That’s smart business, because customers quickly pick up on corporate insincerity. Greenwashing – that lamentable marketing practice of making a business appear sustainable when it is, in fact, anything but – is a stupid, dishonest approach that will derive short-term gains and longer-term losses. Institutional investor Warren Buffett is largely credited with saying that it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it, and he (or whoever said it, because the internet also attributes it to others) is right.

The supermarket chain that trumpets greenness but imports most of its fresh goods; the oil company that pays to protect turtles or seabirds but its product pollutes more than ever; the brewery that recycles bottles but does little to curb its massive water usage; the organic food brand that uses non-recyclable packaging … Sooner or later, consumers find out and, betrayed, many leave. Maybe they’ll post the break-up on social media for good measure.

However, when a brand’s sustainability credentials are for real, when environmental, social and governance (or ESG) principles are baked into its way of doing things, that’s when green marketing comes into its own. (From a marketing perspective, there’s little more exciting than promoting an authentic brand to a jaded audience and seeing them embrace it nevertheless.)

But how green is the marketing itself? What are the marketers’ sustainability chops – do they walk the talk, too? Can they really create authentic campaigns if they don’t? And what is their contribution to the brand’s sustainability account?

Flow Communications, where I work, is today far better off sustainability-wise than it was five years ago. A huge part of that has been going remote, which we did a few weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown (the foresight of our owners around the future of work giving us a head start on others).

Immediately, 60-plus commuters, mainly in cars, were taken off the road. We no longer operated energy- and water-intensive premises. These days, we do far fewer on-site client visits; it’s nearly all online. Over time our head office address and some of our staff have switched to solar, further reducing our overall energy impact.

We’re also steadily moving away from traditional, paper-heavy marketing materials and in-person interaction to more sustainable solutions: from WhatsApp business cards to award-winning online eventing, and AI- and social media-based loyalty to digital marketing for environmental sustainability campaigns, we’re constantly finding novel, green(er) ways to grow brand loyalty.

No matter the platform, however, for green marketing to succeed a brand must always be authentic and tell a believable story. It stands to reason that many can tell a clever story (for marketing is replete with clever people), but to tell it believably, the storytellers should themselves be believers.

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