When Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, heard in July 2007 that Clorox was looking to link up on a product launch, he was dubious. "I suspected the products would not pass muster," said Mr. Pope, 63, who leads the environmental group with 800,000 dues-paying members. "I figured it would be greener than usual but a light shade of green, and we wouldn't be interested in it."
But after a six-month process, a deal was struck: The environmental group would lend its logo and, by extension, a green halo to Clorox in exchange for an (undisclosed) percentage of sales of a Green Works line of five products, including an all-purpose cleaner and a toilet-bowl cleaner.
After its first few months on the market, Green Works sales are estimated at $20 million, the product has gotten exposure on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," and Clorox has raised its volume forecast five times.
A success story, right? Not so fast. The Sierra Club association has not been without its problems, and that offers a cautionary tale to would-be marketers eager to court similar endorsements. What it teaches is organizations within the environmental movement are a far cry from ready to march lock step behind a major marketer such as Clorox.
'Whoring the environment'
In fact, four of the Sierra Club's 64 chapters outright opposed the association. And it's not hard to find a blog by outraged former Sierra Club members decrying the partnership. In the online political blog Counterpunch, former Sierra Club member Karyn Strickler rails "The Sierra Club Sells out to Clorox." "They are whoring the environment for financial gain, they've lost their mission and lost their way," said Tim Hermach of Native Forest Council, a former Sierra Club member.
Then there's the Florida chapter suspension -- a complicated, multi-layered story that essentially boils down to two competing narratives. What's not in dispute is that in late March, the national club suspended the leadership of the 35,000-member chapter and installed new leaders from national headquarters.
The Sierra Club contends the suspension had nothing to do with the chapter's objections to the Green Works association. (Mr. Pope contends the process to suspend the chapter started before the Clorox deal was announced.)
Betsy Roberts, former chapter chairwoman, and Karen Orr, former chapter political-committee chairwoman, blasted the chapter's suspension in blogs and online environmental publications, arguing it happened as the national group pursued "its unsavory new focus on lucrative revenues from corporate donations." Neither could be reached for additional comment.
As such, the Green Works case study raises important questions about whether it's worth courting endorsements from environmental groups.
Correcting the record
Clorox Green Works Brand Manager Matt Kohler says it is, although he also conceded, "It's been frustrating for us to see some of the misinformation out there, particularly in the blog community, where they are saying things that are just factually incorrect."
The proof remains in the results for Clorox, especially considering that growth in the estimated $2.7 billion market for household cleaning products is basically flat. Mainstream consumers that scoffed at paying premium prices for brands such as Seventh Generation and Method started snapping up Green Works, thanks to ads that drove home the idea that "finally" there's a green product that actually works.
Clorox has not released sales figures, but sales topped at least $11.2 million by May 18 at drug stores and mass merchandisers, according to Information Resources Inc., a figure that excludes Wal-Mart. With Wal-Mart -- a big backer of the product launch -- included, some watchers suggest sales could already be in the $20 million range.
That progress is a testament to the innovation culture at Clorox, which jumped in with not just one product but five, based upon internal research that showed that 25% of consumers said they worry about the harsh chemicals in cleaners and more than 40% said they wished there was a natural cleaner that really worked. In addition to overcoming price concerns, Clorox also overcame a hurdle by making its products available in places beyond specialty stores. "People want to make green choices, but they don't want to have to sacrifice," Mr. Kohler said. "They don't want to have to make a special trip."
If there's a lesson here, it's to carefully review both sides of a relationship. "You need to spend a lot of time upfront before you ink a deal and know that both brands are sharing reputations and halos," said Carol Cone, chairman-CEO of Cone, a Boston-based strategy and communications agency that specializes in cause marketing.