Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Business in a post-green world

by Marc Stoiber


A few months ago, Joel Makower of GreenBiz wrote an eye-opening article. He observed that with few exceptions, green brands had failed to capture more than a sliver of their markets.

The piece was thought-provoking, with a clarion call to rethink the way we position brands with strong sustainability credentials.

The subject deserves more analysis than an 800 word story can provide. So instead, I’ll touch on a few reasons behind consumer rejection of ‘green marketing as we know it’, and offer some thoughts on how we could build more resilient, successful green brands in the future.

Six good reasons to reject green

In 2011, OgilvyEarth released a study titled Mainstream Green. The research revealed that 82% of North American consumers had ‘good green intentions’, but only 16% acted on those intentions. Why? (

They feel guilty. Using green products implied making sacrifices in things like efficacy and price.  Buy a green cleaner, for example, and you feel bad about perhaps leaving the counters not-quite-so-clean.

It isn’t easy being green. Green = celebrity wannabe or crunchy granola hippie. Regardless of the moniker, making green choices means being labeled by your mainstream friends.

Green is the new pink. Half the population is male, and they think green is girly. Sure, green products used to tip the scales much more toward feminine (organics and spa products, for example). But today, green is energy, cars and lumber. Unfortunately, old impressions die hard.

Green costs. In some cases, it does cost more to make something green. But in a lot of cases it doesn’t. But similar to green being called ‘girly’, old perceptions die hard.

Green is confusing. When I got into green business, nobody could agree what the movement should be called: green, CSR, sustainable, and the list goes on. Sustainability may be a complicated, systemic issue, but our tendency to overcomplicate things like green certifications does the movement no favors.

Green suspicion. Why do more people buy Clorox Greenworks over Seventh Generation? Because they trust Clorox to get the job done. Mainstream consumers have a soft spot for mainstream companies. These are the companies who need to engage on the brand level.

Those are just a few of the reasons cited by OgilvyEarth for mainstream consumer reticence toward green. But is there a solution?

Futureproof brands

I believe we have to stop thinking about sustainability, and start thinking about futureproof brands.

Futureproof brands are brands that are resilient, that can thrive in a chaotic world. They’re brands that can weather storms created by sustainability issues (diminishing resources and punitive environmental legislation, for example). But they are also built for a world of cultural mashups, and a rapidly morphing communications landscape.

The following five pillars of futureproof brands may help us rethink our perspective on green for the mainstream.

Sustainability. Sustainability does make business sense. Unfortunately, as we see above, mainstream America isn’t buying it.

Smart brands like Nike believe the solution is to incorporate sustainability into every business decision, but not into the brand. That way, the promise of athletic performance is never diluted, but the company is positioned to perform more efficiently and sustainably.

Innovation. Many companies are ill-equipped to produce a steady stream of innovation. Most approach it haphazardly…a few pet projects in the pipeline, and little to no system for creating a steady stream of new products, services and business models.

For a brand to be futureproof, it must have an innovation plan that not only encompasses short term cosmetic changes, but longer term shifts that will line up with consumer needs 5, 10, 20 years from now.

Design. More than ever before, cultures are mixing and ethnic groups intermingling. English is not the de facto first language, America is not the sole generator of popular culture, and ideas do not flow in one direction from developed to developing markets.

In this cultural cacophony, what do all of us understand? Design.
Good design creates a visceral reaction in people. It conveys beauty while aiding function. It generates
feelings of wonder and drives desire.

Is your product well designed? Give it to a child or to someone who doesn’t speak your language, and see if they can understand how to use it. Even better, see if using it puts a smile on their face.

Perennial insights. Great brands are driven by great consumer insights.

It pays to hold up your key insights to scrutiny, and brainstorm on their relevance in the future. At worst, this exercise might provide you with the alarming news that people won’t need your product forever. At best, it will get you thinking with broader scope, and answering briefs that allow far greater innovation.

Social Interaction. I cut my teeth in an advertising world where brands were displayed in metaphoric show windows – consumers were only allowed to see them in their best light, and there was no interaction allowed.

Today, brands, and companies, are like fishbowls. Consumers can look at them from every angle, even stick their hand in and slosh around the water. There are no boundaries.

We all tend to think of social interaction as synonymous with social media. As a new technology. That’s missing the point.

The point is, people are getting involved. Communication is a two way street. We’re not creating communication campaigns, but movements. Can your brand embrace that?

And Your Brand?

Is your business ready for a post green world?

Here’s a good place to start looking for the answer. I call it getting outside the jar.

Once you’ve been at a company for more than 6 months, or working on a problem for more than that time, you’re inside the jar. The world looks normal, but you can’t see the most obvious things. Like the writing on the label.

The result? You end up going along the same old path, with the same old results

That won’t work if you’re trying to find your way in the post-green world. Because we need new ideas.

So I would challenge you to find someone, or a team of people, who can help you think outside the jar about where your company is going.

Get these people to study your company, or brand. And get their candid opinions on where it’s is going.
95% of what they say may not be relevant or useful. But I can guarantee you it will be surprising. And a few of their points may start your brand down the right path to future success.
Marc Stoiber is a creative director, entrepreneur, green brand specialist and writer. He works with clients to build resilient, futureproof brands.

Marc's leadership positions have included VP of Green Innovation at Maddock Douglas, President and Founder of Change Advertising, National Creative Director of Grey Canada and Creative Director of DDB Toronto.

He has helped two ad agencies rise from obscurity to market prominence, and his work has been recognized by virtually every international industry award for advertising and design.

Marc writes on brand innovation for Huffington Post, Fast Company, GreenBiz and Sustainable Life Media. He also speaks on the subject from coast to coast, and has been featured at TED. He can be reached at marc(at)


  1. "Why do more people buy Clorox Greenworks over Seventh Generation? Because they trust Clorox to get the job done."

    I don't think it's as much about trust as the following given a person is wanting to buy green.

    1. Clorox does a lot more marketing.

    2. Clorox has bigger distribution.

    3. Clorox is, or is perceived to be cheaper.

  2. @anonymous,

    On the point of distribution, I believe Marc inferred that even in areas where distribution of both products are available the consumer will still choose Clorox. -Those are some great valid points.