|Photo: Rohanna Mertens|
"Don't treat [the environment] as only a marketing promotion," said Carol Yang, VP-corporate marketing, Timberland, referring to a practice many call "greenwashing."
Integrating the message
"You have to make sure green is integrated in all your business practices," said Ms. Yang, who kicked off a panel presentation today at Advertising Age's first Green Conference, which honored six marketers for their environmental initiatives, by outlining do's and don'ts of eco-marketing to a packed house of more than 550 at the Skirball Center in New York.
Authenticity and transparency are key to making eco-marketing work. If those eco principles aren't fully integrated, that's OK, Ms. Yang said -- if a company is honest and upfront about its strengths and weaknesses and stays true to its brand personality, customers will be more forgiving.
Ms. Yang also implied that while there is a fine line between preaching at customers and teaching them about issues, incentives don't hurt. Encouraging consumers to bring Timberland shoe boxes back to stores to be recycled by offering them a discount on future purchases is a good way to drive greenness -- and sales.
"At one point leading with your values was thought to be a nice approach to business, but not particularly profitable," said Marjorie Schussel, national manager-corporate communications at Toyota North America. "But now consumers have become more educated." Toyota has watched Prius sales alone jump from the initial target of 12,000 per year to 24,000 in May 2007 alone.
Moving market share
Aspen Skiing Co. watched responses to survey questions about the importance of the company's environmental stance jump from 10% to 33% in the past decade. The number who make purchasing decisions based on these policies jumped from roughly 2% to 33%. If one-third of Aspen's customers cared about environmentalism, reasoned David Perry, senior VP-mountain division, there's a good chance a third of his competitors' customers do as well. Who wouldn't jump at that chance to move market share?
Along with Toyota, Timberland and Aspen Skiing, executives from Ben & Jerry's, Flexcar and Hewlett-Packard received global citizen statuettes to commemorate their companies' efforts in leading the way in environmentally sound corporate practices.
Numbers were bandied about by panelists, but not without some attempt to make them tangible in some way. The 7.9 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions Toyota estimates it has spared the earth as more and more people drive Toyota's hybrid cars? That's equivalent to 700,000 very solid elephants removed from the atmosphere. HP claims to have recycled 160 million pounds of material, the equivalent of 600 jumbo jets.
Ben & Jerry's pipe dream
Rob Michalak, director-social mission and public elations, Ben & Jerry's, ended the panel presentations with a little levity. Twenty-five years ago when the "boys," as he referred to founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, started their ice-cream company "all this conceptual thinking was a pipe dream. Of course they could have been smoking a pipe, we don't know, but it could be where the munchies came in."
As with Aspen Skiing and others, Ben & Jerry's has decided it is not enough to negate its environmental impact; it needs to go beyond that, perhaps as a way to make up for past pollution, to pave the way for others to follow, or to stay in business for the long haul.
"If we want to be a sustainable business, what does that mean?" asked Mr. Perry. "It means we want to be in business forever."