Brands R Us: How Advertising Works
|E-Comm: Committed Business Goes Beyond Green Marketing
“If you can promise not to change our ideas,
we can promise to help you change the world.”
STEPHEN GAREY’S “PROMISE” was the headline on an advertisement he had placed soliciting clients for his new advertising agency devoted to environmentally sensitive products and services. After 30 years of writing ads “touting preservative-laden food and polluting automobiles” Garey was rebelling against “the culture of careless consumption he believes advertising promotes” (Rothenberg, 1990, p. C20). Reared to “do no harm,” Garey said it never occurred to him that advertising would try to get him to do something different. But in opening his agency, he issued a striking apology.
Despite overwhelming evidence of serious damage to the Earth, tens of thousands of companies, large and small, continue to make products and profits in ways that can only lead to further ill health and tragedy. These companies can no longer be viewed as successful. But their advertising is. We ought to know. We created some of it. (Rothenberg, 1990, p. C20).
His advertisement and a subsequent article in The Los Angeles Times generated over 300 responses.
Garey is one of many in the marketing and advertising industries who are finding their ways out of pollution supporting, earth damaging business systems and trying to apply their talents to more environmentally and ecologically sound endeavors. They are demonstrating that it is possible to combine profit generating business decisions with prudent earth preserving and socially just actions. According to Garey the overall question is, “can anyone in our business afford to remain innocent?” His pledge to “change the world” is a succinct summary of the philosophy to which a cadre of businesses, large and small, are subscribing-that of ecological communication or e-comm.
In an optimistic forecast, 180 degrees away from the cynical reviews of green marketing, Simon (1992) proclaimed that environmentalism, “long regarded as a nuisance from the fringes of activism, has now gone mainstream, turned upscale, made headlines and impacted market shares” (p. 269). One manifestation of her predictions is the turn to ecological communications. E-comm that is currently emerging from the green morass is a comprehensive, integrated communications strategy that permeates every company policy including manufacturing, distribution, disposal, pricing, and hiring, all other aspects of conducting business as well as communication. It is working in conjunction with stakeholders, that is, customers, employees, and other community members that a company touches, as much as with shareholders. As Howard Marder (1990) said, “Don’t claim that your product is environmentally friendly and forget the facility producing it. If you have a green label on your packaging, and you are pumping tons of chemicals into the air at your plant site, you will have to do some explaining” (p.55). Simply put, e-comm is “matching words and deeds” (Frankel, 1992). As this concept develops it is being called by many names, but ecological- or e-comm seems to be emerging as the most appropriate description.
Following green marketing embarrassments of Hefty’s biodegradable garbage bags that didn’t degrade and green claims that couldn’t be delivered, marketers were facing a jaundiced audience that saw green strategies as “a term used by the advertising industry as an effort to exploit” (Rigney, 1992, p. S-2). 10hathan S. Baskin, Corporate Manager, Public Affairs, Nissan North America, Inc., describes the problem colorfully as “the hollow green linings we creatively find to promote our otherwise brown clouds of business behavior ... ” (Baskin, 1992, p. 50). He is stressing what he has dubbed e-communications because symbolic green gestures have produced perceived added benefits without incurring significant additional cost or change in lifestyles. Baskin added that appreciating and buying real environmentally-responsible products and services will require considerable consumer education which is something most corporations have been unwilling to do so far.
Bob Viney, vice president of marketing for Church & Dwight Co.’s Arm & Hammer Household Products called green marketing “a code word for yet another corporate hypocrisy” (p. S-2). He is advocating an “alternative moniker” that implies “credibility, thoughtfulness and thoroughness.” His suggestion is environmental communication, because green implies an end result and marketing oversimplifies what’s being done. According to Viney, environmental communication is not just marketing, it’s R&D, distribution, manufacturing, health and safety.
Delving into the e-comm philosophy even deeper, Bruce Harrison (1992), Chairman of E. Bruce Harrison Company, Inc., an environmental issues consulting firm, coined a parallel description, sustainable communications.
Sustainable communication is a results driven process to be used by the organization wishing to benefit from the creation of long-term relationships with the firm’s stakeholders .... It is continuous, open, interactive, it is consistent, with measurable results, and ever-improving .... Unsustainable communication is an unsupported statement by a company about its green commitment or a meaningless claim on a product label. On one level, sustainable communication is not misleading consumers, but that level does not reach the deeper meaning of the concept. In fact you have to not rest while you are not misleading. The green scene is dynamic. Unsustainable communication is any communication that does not advance a good, lasting relationship. (p. 245)
Contained within Harrison’s concept of “sustainability” is the e-comm commitment to cradle-to-grave marketing. Gitlitz (1990) identified cradle-to-grave packaging as including recycling plans and decomposition in the grave. Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes (Bean, 1990) is also among those promoting the concept of cradle to grave standards for marketers. This approach holds a marketer responsible for every step of the manufacturing and marketing process, from the fuels and chemicals used to disposal of the packaging in a landfill. Once a total e-marketing plan is in place it is the responsibility of e-communicators to announce every phase of the plan and follow-up often. “Consumer education is the real backbone of an environmental marketers long-term strategy“ (Frankel, 1992, p. 37). Stakeholders must be thoroughly informed about a company’s e-comm aspirations before the program can deliver any impact.
As business practitioners e-communicators are seeking a profit, but their business decisions are not exclusively driven by bottom line financial considerations. For them the bottom line is sustaining the planet, and their business decisions are guided by a desire to “make peace with our natural environment” (Taylor & Muller, 1992, p. 6). Communications programs are the visible evidence of broad ecological commitments, but genuine e-comm and e-marketing initiatives penetrate all levels of the business operation, even those not seen by consumers.
Backlash Ripples through E-comm Efforts
A slow acceptance and growth of e-comm can be attributed in part to many of the poorly managed and ill-fated green marketing endeavors. The bandwagon popularity of E-Comm6 green strategies engendered superficial, opportunistic, unsubstantiated and risky premature environmental claims. The first corporate response to consumer demands for more environmentally safe business practices was manifested in the form of green marketing, an exercise “posited on the belief that getting there first with a packaging or advertising claim would help a brand’s image and sales” (Kiley, 1991, p. 32.).
A plethora of environmentally safe and eco-friendly claims, fraught with inconsistency and lacking substantiation, backfired on many marketers as they tried to outgreen one another in a wave of “greenwashing” (Elkington, 1991; Gitlitz, 1990; N. Goldstein, 1990; Kiley, 1991). During the green backlash (Elkington, 1991; Fierman, 1991; O’Brien, 1992; Simon, 1992; Snyder, 1992; Taylor & Muller, 1992) consumers shied away from green products in a “thicket of confusing language” and an “assortment of dubious labeling and advertising practices that tainted the whole field of environmental marketing” (Taylor & Muller, 1992, p. 6). Mobil’s biodegradable Hefty trash bag faux pas ended in cash settlements for the $1.1 billion market leader (Simmons, 1992). Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom initiated the “Con of the Year” award, which they publicized liberally following each presentation, for the company that had made the most false green claims (Elkington, 1991; Marder, 1990). “Unfortunately, the years of non communication between business and the stakeholder communities have contributed to a level of distrust and disparate beliefs regarding the standards by which corporate environmental performance should be measured” (Mastrandonas & Strife, 1992). Even though some companies were striving legitimately respond to consumer interest in the environment, hype exceeded good faith efforts and penetration of genuine messages was minimal.
When Americans were asked in 1990 where they got most of their environmental information, they listed mass media first, with 75% citing television and 65% naming newspapers as their first choice for environmental news. Environmental groups were the second major source at 32%, ranking slightly higher than government, and in last place, with an 11% ranking, were large corporations, the purveyors of “e“ and green information (Simon, 1992, p. 276). A 1991 Advertising Age survey (Green marketing revolution, 1991) revealed that 66% of the 1500 respondents could not name a single environmental conscious company. Procter & Gamble was the most mentioned firm in that category, but with a mere 6% of the responses. For accuracy of information, advertising, an e-comm medium, ranked last, well behind product labeling (63%) and self-education (75%).
The apparent ineffectiveness of green marketing sounds as if it could be a death knell for e-communication. However, the shift from “green” to “e” indicates recognition of some of the core problems have plagued green efforts. Unsupported environmental claims and confusing guidelines induced justifiable skepticism. Market driven green decisions were too shallow to capture market share much less any depth of consumer commitment.
Though Garey, the innovative advertiser from Santa Monica, California, was operating a small, locally focused business, the problem of how to maintain production of goods demanded by a society and, at the same time, maintain a livable world is a global dilemma. Preservation of the planet would suggest a universal or “global“ appeal useful for e- communications, but different levels of environmental activity from Third World countries to nations of the Triad (identified by Simon, 1992, as Canada, Denmark, Japan, West Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom) make a uniform strategy nearly impossible.
Global “e” or green strategies also present a special problem inasmuch as they involve a complex set of players whose relative power varies greatly from country to country (Simon, 1992). While environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund and the media exposure they can generate are major forces in the U. S., they are virtually nonexistent in Japan. Strong recycling and packaging programs stem from manufacturers initiatives in the U.S., whereas in Europe they come from the retail sector. Each strategist, whether a local business operator or an international manager, must be tuned in to the level
of environmental concern in which he or she is working and must be aware of the nexus from which problem solving proposals emanate in a given region.
Advertising Age’s Gary Levin (1993) summarized the findings of London based Research International’s 1992 survey of environmental conditions and attitudes in 22 countries. Researchers segmented the countries into five groups according to consumers’ degree of environmental awareness and action. E-communicators should note the progression with which respondents move from holding governments responsible for environmental concerns among the least involved countries to placing the problems squarely at the feet of manufacturers and marketers among the more deeply involved nations.
SPECTATORS: Least developed countries including who have relatively low awareness of environmental problems and hold their governments, not manufactures, responsible.
PASSIVE ENVIRONMENTALISTS: While they are similar to spectators this group displayed more serious concerns about their environment, but appear passive in their responses.
LIP-SERVICE ENVIRONMENTALISTS: Highly consumer driven societies that profess awareness of and concern for environmental effects, but seem unwilling to trade convenience and disposability for a reduction in preservatives and additives. Manufacturers were almost entirely absolved of responsibility for environmental problems.
NEGOTIATORS: Consumers are aware of and concerned about environmental problems, but take a measured approach to them based on trade-offs. They use eco-friendly products when the price is acceptable, but they rarely focus on greenness as a goal. Most are willing to accept some personal responsibility for their surroundings, but place the onus for environmental problems on marketers.
ANXIOUS EXPERTS: These are the “desperately worried” environmentalists living in Scandinavian countries, Germany, Canada and the U.S. Simon Chadwick, chairman and ceo of Research International, described this group as “almost off the edge where naturalness is concerned. The more old-fashioned the product, the more it can be proved to be natural, the more interested they are” (Levin, 1993, p. 29). Anxious experts emphasize the role of marketers but also accept blame themselves for factors influencing their own health as well as the global environment.
Carincross (1992), pointed out, for e-marketers planning long term strategies, that the pressure to go green in the next decade will be seen in industrializing countries that have just begun to realize links between the environment and development.
According to Simon (1992), across the Triad, business is perceived as the chief cause of environmental problems. Of particular significance to e-comm is the perception among U.S. respondents that a lack of education about environmental issues is an important factor. Apparently a notable education gap exists in the U. S. particularly in comparison with Europe. A Simmons Market Research Bureau study said 60% of the U. S. favors boycotts of polluting companies. “This unanimity strongly suggests that companies’ efforts to self-regulate and publicize their achievements may be a case of 100 little, too late. Negative perceptions of business and the public’s wish for punitive action such as bans appear well-entrenched” (p. 273). Conscientious business owners and managers, however, are disentangling themselves from the muddle and refocusing with a sharpened vision of environmental and ecological issues. The shakeout that is currently underway in the marketplace will separate the greens, classified by this author as Jade Greens, Forest Greens and Deep Greens.
Frankel (1992) noted that two years after the first wave of green hoopla is over, “two groups of businesses have emerged to serve ‘green’ consumers. One group extracts whatever short-term returns are available from this new marketing strategy. The other group assumes that green consumerism is here to stay” (p. 34). Jade greens are of the former description. They embark on green ventures for whatever share points they believe it can garner-green should equal greenbacks. Environmentalism is an appeal used to attract a specific niche, while it remains invisible when other market segments are targeted. Meticulous attention is devoted to compliance with environmental regulations because “false or misleading ‘green claims’ can lead to hefty fines and damages, injunctions and embarrassment or negative publicity” (O’Brien,
1992, p. 56). Fierman (1991) described compliance as “the hell many manufacturers have lived through while trying to do the right thing”
(p. 91). While jade greens live within the law they should not be expected to assume any responsibility not required of them.
Forest Greens grow from the second group identified by Frankel. They recognize that green consumerism is here to stay, and wish to profit from it, but their products targeted to the green niche are thoroughly researched and deliver their claims. Going beyond compliance is not unthinkable. Many large corporations with an environmental rather than ecological focus can be classified as Forest Greens. They manufacture solid environmentally safe products and frequently sponsor social marketing issues such as saving forests, maintaining whale populations and other non-controversial nature themes. Some Forest Greens may exhibit split personalities when other products in their corporate line that are targeted to non-green audiences fall short of solid green goals. Forest Greens are constantly adapting to new market conditions and have the potential to be much stronger ecological marketers as consumer.
Deep Greens are true-blue greens. Deep green borrows from Rush’s description of eco-communication as the “process by which each planetary species is brought into integrative equality through the access and use of appropriate and accurate information” (Rush, 1994, p. 4). Deep Green strives to achieve the ambitions of Rush’s Deep Communication. They recognize holism in which their businesses are viewed as part of a larger world. Communication can’t offer only what a consumer needs to know at a particular moment in order to close a sale. The company must also make available information customers have a right to know about products, operations, manufacturing and policy at the time of purchase and otherwise. Deep Greens accept that they are part of a community. Their environmental marketing plans, as described by Frankel (1992), are comprehensive, built for the long term and, from the marketers’ standpoint, destined to yield permanent increases in market share. “The long- term payoff will make the short-term troubles worth bearing” (p. 34). It is from the Forest and Deep Greens that most e-communicators will evolve.
The Ecopreneurs-from Seedling to Sequoia
Anyone can be an ecopreneur (adapted from “ecoentrepreneur,” R. Goldstein, 1990 p. 48), a business owner or manager dedicated to the encompassing philosophy of ecological marketing. Corporate giants have made their attempts. McDonald’s has been working with the Environmental Defense Fund, and Dow Chemical, Monsanto and Union Carbide can all cite their contributions to building a better world (Carincross, 1992; Elkington, 1991; Fierman, 1991; Harrison, 1992; Simon, 1992; Snyder, 1992), but at best they are Forest Greens with the potential to slowly retool, reimage and repostion to strengthen their ecological claims. Though they’re the giants of industry, they’re the seedlings of e-comm with plenty of room to grow and still highly vulnerable to outside forces.
It is smaller business practitioners and, more often, new business people who tend to embrace ecopreneurship. Nora Goldstein (1990) of In Business sees ecopreneurship as a well established business practice. “For years companies have labored in a certain degree of obscurity, selling products and services that make environmental sense, and many of us have carved out quite a nice market niche”
(p. 36). Personal commitment often plays into ecopreneur decisions. Jacquelyn Ottman, president of J. Ottman Consulting, a New York firm specializing in environmental marketing and author of Green Marketing, said corporate direct response buyers are starting to think green. “Their consciousness has been raised as an individual” (Bertrand, 1991, p. 56). These businesses represent the sequoias, the firmly established and fully developed e-communicators.
More and more companies are adopting the “e” way of doing business-Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream; PreCycled, a retail store that sells only green products; Tom’s of Maine, personal toiletries manufacturer; Earth Care Paper Products, selling only environmental friendly office and personal paper products; Higgins Natural, makers of unisex sportswear using environmentally sound procedures from start to finish; Coop America; the Body Shop; Seventh Generation and others.
An ecological communication philosophy cannot be reviewed independent of other business considerations. Integration is the thrust of e-comm-integration with various company departments, integration with the community in which the business operates, and integration with the eco-system. Literature about e-comm is sprinkled with lists of guidelines, suggestions and steps to take
Green marketing has been unconvincing in its efforts to persuade consumers to purchase products that claim to do no harm to the environment or to upset the ecological balance of the Earth. If a business is sincere in its desire to sell to an ecologically concerned audience, they must go beyond green marketing and “greenwashing” into ecommunications. With their experience in communication, advertising and public relations practitioners should not find the transition into e-comm difficult once a company has made the decision to adopt an “e” mentality. Whether through coercion or conviction the companies that produce society’s goods throughout the world have to assess their environmental impact on the Earth. Ecological performance records are becoming one of the criteria by which potential customers select the firms with which they will conduct business. E-comm is not just another format for message dissemination. It is the conduit through which audiences can learn of a firm’s efforts to contribute to a livable world, but as green marketers learned, a convincing ecological image can’t be constructed without the fabric of genuine internal commitment. The first steps to e-comm are coming through personal involvement in ecological concerns which ripple through corporate foundations, jarring its focus from production and profit to commitment and concern.
for a successful program. In a broader perspective, however, the individual proposals can be collapsed into three overriding principles; depth of conviction, overcompliance and coalition formation.
Depth of Conviction
The most sincere e-comm practices tend to derive first from a personal involvement in and commitment to a sustainable world which then radiates outward to penetrate every aspect of a business operation. Communicating positive ecological stances of a company is not a publicity maneuver or a prostituted selling point, but an honest portrayal of a firm’s desire to function complementarily to environmental concerns. Sacrifice, particularly foregoing profit for the benefit of the Earth’s inhabitants, is recognized as a component of the commitment and often is incorporated into corporate policy.
Harrison (1992), following the Second World Industry Conference on Environmental Management in Rotterdam, declared a new era for environmentalism and encouraged moving out of the past and developing a realistic green mentality. The corporate mentality he described would have to comprehend longer time frames, realizing that the investment in communication may not return a dividend in the current quarter or in the current year, but over time would sustain relationships that would payoff for all parties. Communication, he said, has “moved from a proprietary need-to-know mentality to a right-to know” (p. 256).
Glory is not the objective of e-comm executions. When Ace Hardware sought ways in which they could help the environment, they discovered the thick plastic shrink wrap that covers merchandise on pallets during shipping could be refabricated into house brand trash bags. The Gillette company cut use of water at its facility from 730 million gallons a year to 150 million gallons a year, yet neither company has received much publicity or credit for their accomplishments. And in the e-comm vein, they don’t expect to; for Ace and Gillette though, it’s the type of quiet, subtle behavior that demonstrates deep e-comm conviction.
E-communicators consistently mention self-regulation above and beyond government standards as a common practice. Compliance as interpreted by the corporate majority has come to represent the minimum standard for greening. “It is a static condition in the sense that it is not moving toward people’s expectations” (Harrison, 1992,
Achieving 100% compliance can push organizations to such high levels of environmental performance that the economic viability of their organization is in jeopardy. Straightforward compliance is very costly, but, like the Gillette and Ace tactics, it attracts little attention and earns few “public-interest credits” (Harrison, 1992, p. 243). Companies can be in compliance and still suffer from public misconceptions if targeted by activists or the media. “Fewer organizations seem to have a handle on communications” and that can “spell success or failure in your effective transition to a new Green World. Public perception can support or devalue a company’s green performance”(p. 243).
To counter these public perception issues, Harrison (1992) recommends 150% compliance, and Fri (1992) has suggested the “extra-systems game” (p. 92). The two names describe the same process of adopting a pro-active stance, voluntarily going beyond compliance to protect the environment in ways the system does
Companies operating as a self-contained, independent unit will have difficulty functioning within an e-comm philosophy. Grasping the unavoidable interactive nature of doing business, environmentally savvy marketers have started cultivating sustained, two-way communication with their stakeholders.
One of the most valuable things to learn, according to Mastrandonas and Strife (1992), is the importance of dialogues between industry and its stakeholders. “Corporations must understand what stakeholders want to know and why they want to know it” (p. 236), “the gap between business and stakeholders will only be closed when they begin to talk with each other” (p. 340).
Elkington, (1991) Mastrandonas and Strife (1992) and Harrison (1992) outlined a number of approaches that might be considered for stimulating dialogue with stakeholders. They encouraged teaming up with people outside ones’ own firm to help solve general environmental problems, even if they don’t originate from the firm. Harrison suggested empowering employees to achieve personal satisfaction of their individual environmental goals, and introduced “partnering,” the establishment of community advisory panels that discuss environmental issues face-to-face with plant managers, delineating expectations for both sides and identifying ways in which they can assist one another. Developing relationships with public regulatory agencies can further strengthen the foundation upon which an e-comm philosophy can flourish.
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