At last year's Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, a trade show serving the green building sector, the Armstrong World Industries booth featured a sales staff wearing tie-dyed shirts to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and a full-size model VW bus fashioned out of biodegradable material.
The point was to underscore the sustainability of Armstrong's ceiling products, some of which are made of recycled products or can reduce energy costs. But the booth's Earth Day look was secondary to this marketing message from Armstrong: Its environmentally friendly products make good business sense.
When it comes to b-to-b marketing, being green is often about the green.
Companies of all stripes are embracing energy efficiency to reduce costs, and marketers are happy to accommodate them with products and services that can help achieve that aim. Companies using sustainability as a key marketing message include corporate behemoths, such as General Electric Co., as well as smaller companies.
“I don't think it's done for altruistic reasons,” said Steve Lina-weaver, associate principal at GreenOrder, a consulting firm specializing in sustainable business, of the corporate embrace of green practices. “It's being done partially to save money but also because reducing the use of environmental resources and one's carbon footprint is the cost of doing business.”
The rise of China and other emerging economies—and their hunger for raw materials—has helped bring about higher oil prices as well as the increasing scarcity of water and other resources. That has helped bring sustainability to the forefront for businesses around the globe.
“There is no debate about the competition for resources,” said Rich Lechner, VP-eco-efficiency and sustainability solutions at IBM Corp.
Additionally, members of the generation that came of age in the Earth Day era are now in executive roles. “They've reached the point where they're now in charge of companies,” said Steve Thomas, manager-global energy and sustainability communications at Johnson Controls. “The younger generation is a bit more concerned about the environment.”
Johnson Controls has made sustainability a key part of its marketing message. Many of the company's products and services can help its customers improve their energy efficiency.
Thomas cited an example of Johnson Controls helping a customer reduce its facilities footprint. “We can tell a customer, "You've got 25 units, but you probably only need 23,' ” Thomas said. “If they close those two buildings down, they can save a lot of energy.”
Johnson Controls, which used to be a regular print advertiser, now uses other marketing channels, such as participating in green industry organizations and environmentally oriented conferences. Thomas said this has increased the company's profile among a key target audience. “It's almost stealth marketing in some ways,” he said.
At the other end of the marketing spectrum, GE is hardly moving under the green marketer radar. The company's “ecomagination” effort launched with great fanfare in 2005. This initiative is not about tree hugging but real business and marketing goals. GE said it had $18 billion in ecomagination sales last year.
GE manufactures an array of energy-saving products, including aircraft engines, wind turbines, refrigerators and lightbulbs. In addition to print ads and TV spots promoting the ecological value of its offerings, GE is sponsoring the $200 million Ecomagination Challenge, a contest designed to uncover clean energy solutions.
“It's about making clean energy real, right now,” a statement on the Ecomagination Challenge website reads, “... it's the antidote to falling behind other countries. No one company can do it alone. We need the brightest minds to collaborate, invest and innovate.”
For IBM, the message of sustainability is part of its “Smarter Planet” marketing effort, which emphasizes how the interconnectedness of devices can make businesses and governments run more efficiently. In what IBM calls its “op-ads”—copy-heavy advertising that often runs near newspaper op-ed pages—sustainability is a key message. In one of these ads celebrating the power of analytics, copy reads: “With this knowledge we can reduce costs, cut waste and improve the efficiency, productivity and quality of everything from companies to cities.”
Like GE, IBM delivers its sustainability message in more than advertising. For instance, it has started a Facebook page where people can sign up for the company's World Community Grid, which uses the idle power of individual computers to create a virtual supercomputer to help nonprofit organizations research sustainability projects.
As of last week, IBM had 529,106 people signed up for the WCG and had access to the idle power of more than 1.6 million computing devices. John Kennedy, IBM's VP-corporate marketing, said the program “is a great way to get together [for something useful], not just liking something as a fan.”
B-to-b marketers say that a key to successful sustainable marketing is for the product or service to provide a real benefit. A recent report by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing agency, found that 95% of 5,000 consumer products it studied engaged in “greenwashing,” meaning the products made claims to be environmentally friendly that couldn't be verified.
Greenwashing doesn't fly as a strategy in b-to-b marketing, IBM's Lechner said. “In our experience, what's important is to deliver real, quantitative benefits, whether in the form of energy savings, or water savings or packaging reduction,” he said.