Social Media’s Impact on Brand Sustainable Reputation

Today’s post is inspired by recent reading of Marc Gunther’s always interesting blog www.marcgunther.com.

Few things to note before reading on:

*Marc has great access to folks at leading brands, making his blog a great resource for stories from the front lines.

*Marc is active on the “socnets”  with both his blog and his 4,400+ followers on Twitter.  The information he presents has a wide audience.

First up is Marc’s piece on the recent ousting of Seventh Generation leader Jeffery Hollender.

Notice the comments – multiple folks stated they will reassess their purchasing of Seventh Generation products in the future.  This immediate impact will be multiplied by Marc’s social media presence.  This also makes we wonder if the company understands the size of the social community surrounding the sustainable market and its influence.  As Marc notes in his post, no mention of the news on the company website at the time of posting.  It will be interesting to see how this issue translates to reputation and sales as the word spreads through the social sphere.

Second is this interesting profile of Levis and the motivation behind not washing your jeans. (my mom would cringe – but it’s for the planet mom!)   Levis is publicly owning its part of the process, and is setting clear public goals by which it can be measured.  Unless you’re a hemp fanatic, I can’t imagine too many outside of the sustainable converted thinking about the impact of their clothing.  Levis is making it a significant public issue (making sure to talk to bloggers like Marc and promote on its own blog )and helping to educate users of its products while also making self-improvements.

Two brands – one sustainable by nature and one a fashion stalwart, both being discussed in social media circles.  Who knew the sustainable one, the one at the center of a potential “movement” would be the one not being transparent and social.

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For Sustainable Marketers: Stick or Carrot?

In a fascinating piece this week from the Wall Street Journal, the case was made that individuals will only effectively change their behavior in mass based on peer pressure.  The theory, supported by some direct studies and data, is that change takes place on a larger scale when you are made aware of what your neighbors are doing and react to “keep up with the Jones’.”   The article also details how rebate and financial incentives are not the drivers many of us believe they are (or should be).

The implication for marketers is staggering – Should I tout the positive impact my product has on the environment, rolling out statistics to consumers on how their purchase further benefits all of us. (the rising tide theory)

OR, should we subtly shame our customers into making the “right” choice since they will be left out by the crowd?  This is a fine line, and many mass products do this in a very sophisticated way (think the Pepsi Generation, or any Apple advertising, for example)

One of the take-aways I found most interesting was near the end of the piece: Efforts to exploit our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses instinct can also backfire if there’s too much emphasis on competition.

There is this interesting nugget:  Paul Stern, who studies climate change at the National Academy of Sciences, cautions that peer pressure so far has proved effective with “relatively low-impact behaviors” that don’t require individuals to make big sacrifices.

So, we want to be part of the crowd, but will only be motivated by that need for small change?  What’s a company who is asking for a sea change – rewiring your entire house for solar, for example – do to motivate real adoption.

My initial reaction – lead.  And don’t just say you’re going to do it, but commit.  And have a dispassionate understanding of the resources needed to do so.

Google came out last week talking about its plans for an offshore wind pipeline system.  Heady, expensive, long term stuff.  And they have the resources to pull it off.  For the smaller sustainable company without endless cash, this means leading by finding those pockets of enthusiasm and slowly building towards more mass adoption.  It is finding the better nature in the right buyers.  These leaders will have influence in their own spheres.  It will be slower; it will take longer, and it requires smarter investments.  Just because you’re not Google doesn’t mean you can make a difference with a sustainable product – and peer pressure won’t be your magic bullet.

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How does reality impact Green and Sustainable Marketing?

Two recent posts from local Boston press got me thinking about how we are going to move forward and effectively market in the sustainability/green space.

First up, Jeff Jacoby at the Boston Globe, who discusses how according to certain statistics building landfills is more ecological than recycling.  I’ve seen many stories in the past regarding how “green” certain initiatives are, CSAs and local farming along with recycling being the two main examples.  So what’s real?  Does it actually cost us more and is more harmful to recycle?  These programs have been in place for decades now, and we still don’t have a definitive answer for the masses.  I predict we’ll always recycle – it’s now accepted much like an urban myth, and its a catalyst for mass understanding of the potential impact each of us has on the planet.  But that doesn’t necessarily make it true….

Next up is Martin LaMonica at Cnet, who discusses the idea of rapid innovation (like traditional IT approaches) vs. a longer term steady move towards energy reform.  This piece gets to the heart of it – what’s the right approach, investment in new technologies or evolution of existing ones?  Where do we spend our resources, both financially and (from my perspective) marketing-wise?  Which is the right area to promote?  Choosing the right path here is crucial…its commonly accepted that right now we’re already “behind” in the US vs. other countries on the green tech arch.  Making the wrong strategic investment and pushing technologies that aren’t likely to be winners (is solar to capital-intensive?  Does wind bring too little return?) dilutes our ability to succeed in the short and long-term.  What’s the reality of what we have today vs. “potential” solutions?

Marketers play a critical role in shaping which technologies are accepted and valued.  With heavy promotion and awareness behind it, recycling right now is accepted as the “right” thing to do.   For marketers, balancing the truth and doing an effective job for their clients, especially startups in emerging markets like sustainability is a hard balancing act.  Know your facts, they will come back to help or haunt you sooner or later.

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Why Good Sustainable Marketing Matters

Had the opportunity to watch “The Cove” while on vacation last week.  Highly recommended if you haven’t had the chance yet.  It was disturbing, enlightening and inspiring, all at the same time, and well worthy of its many accolades and awards.

The extras were also worth the time, and I was struck by something Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said in one of the pieces.  He was discussing the Greek idea of stewardship for all of the commons – water, air, land – and how ecology is rooted in the Greek work eco, meaning home.

It was this notion of the commons that stood out for me.  You could assume if anyone is involved in sustainability at their core this notion is embraced and fundamental.  However I’m not sure as marketers, even in these days of increased consciousness, that we fully understand the power of this idea.  The idea that everything we produce, create and promote that impacts the air, water and earth has a responsibility to the larger community in which we live.

This isn’t a call for green washing or overstating a company’s CSR policy – actually its the opposite.  If organizations are to be believed and embraced by the larger public when they “market” their sustainable credentials in any form, at the base of those efforts there needs to be an understanding of the commons and how important they are to each individual (aka customer).

I’m looking forward the Verdantix webinar on September 9 discussing the state of sustainable PR and Marketing, which will focus on this very notion of what is right approach when communicating about a company’s sustainable programs to ALL of the audiences impacted by our products and services.

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Heading Out

We’re taking off for vacation tomorrow and will be back after Labor Day.  Happy end of the summer to everyone, looking forward to writing again on all things sustainable and marketing in the fall!

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Sustaining Momentum

As I get ever so closer to vacation next week, my thoughts have started to migrate towards recharging and renewal.  In that spirit, I wanted to share some interesting pieces I’ve been reading this week that span across that spectrum.

* Martin LaMonica of CNet has a short but very in-depth series on the current state of electricity, the role technology is playing in changing our consumption and how we sustain our ever-growing electronic lifestyles.  He takes a look at both sides of the coin: home and generation.  Highly recommended and especially timely in Massachusetts where there is a growing debate on National Grid’s planned rate hikes.

* Working off of a piece by Matt Richtel in the New York Times that discusses how our brains are changing due to our (some would say over) exposure to computers, blogger Marc Gunther explores the idea further in his post earlier this week on Sustainability and Your Brain.  Marc makes an excellent point in conclusion:

“Being “always” on is ultimately unsustainable. More than that, the idea of resting and restoring (the earth, your workforce) are part of a sustainable business practice.”

As a society we are moving ever faster in the electronic/information revolution age.  It brings to the forefront a great deal of questions:

* How much is too much information?  And where will we get all the energy to sustain the information flow?

* How will we sort this information to make better and more sustainable business decisions?  There is a great recent TED conference session online about data visualization’s potential role here, fascinating and well spent 18 minutes with David McCandless.

* How can/will this information be used to avoid another BP-style disaster in the future?

We’re heading off to Cape Cod to enjoy some of the national seashore and reconnect.  I hope everyone has a chance to do something similar as we wind down the summer.

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Two Brand Marketing Approaches to Touting Green Cred

I’ve had the chance to experience how two very different brands approached touting their green credentials in the past month.  What I found most interesting is how different their marketing around their green efforts took shape, with the more B2B-focused company actually pushing the green angle more openly.

First up is Brother, the fax/printer company.  Unless you are an SMB/SOHO you likely interact with Brother products at the office.  I happen to have an individual printer in my office that recently needed a new toner cartridge.  After opening up the box, along with a new cartridge I was greeted with a leaflet describing how to help Brother keep the old cartridge out of landfills.  Here’s what struck me:

* Clear directions – they provided a 1-2-3 process that was easy and fast.

* No hassle – they provided me with the FedEx shipping label and instructions on how to return the package, providing contact info to help find a drop off or arrange a pickup.

* They answered the question of “why Brother?” – in their short summary (3 sentence, 5 bullets), I know quickly understood why Brother is asking me to participate and was given an appropriate level of detail on the program they have undertaken as an Energy Star partner.

Next up is Left Hand Brewing, the fine Colorado-based providers of a a close buddy of mine’s favorite Milk Stout.   A pure consumer brand, Left Hand interestingly doesn’t tout their green cred as clearly as I think they should on their packaging or their site.  They do have a note on the top label of their bottle describing how the beer was brewed with clean energy from SimpleSolar.com electric systems.  However it was only on one side in small print and I noticed it by accident.

Juxtapose this with another Colorado-based brewery New Belgium, the home of Fat Tire and other beers.  New Belgium talks more openly and in larger print/detail about their sustainable efforts on their site and packaging, with a link to a sustainable sub-page and a front page banner ad about a 1% for the planet initiative.  Pretty stark difference from what I would consider prime competitors.

With sustainable and green marketing still evolving, its interesting to see how these diverse companies approached the issue and how much emphasis they applied given their products and cultures.  It’s clear both B2B and B2C can gain positive customer impression from promoting their bona fides if done in a) a non-obtrusive way that b) supports the overall culture, bringing along with it competitive differentiation as well.

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