BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- After years of touting their own green accomplishments, marketers have a new message for consumers as this year's Earth Day approaches: "It's not us. It's you."
The focus of most green advertising has primarily centered on marketers' own products and process changes to reduce waste and environmental impact. But a growing number of marketers are shifting the focus toward consumer behavior, either in their sustainability PR efforts, their advertising or both.
The moves are in some cases obvious, such as a funny ad launched earlier this month for Hanes, which shows children glaring and making faces at a man who has chosen not to wear the brand's T-shirts made using renewable energy or Eco-Smart socks made from recycled fibers. Whole Foods Markets last month launched its "Take Back Our Plates" radio, digital and outdoor campaign that focuses on the role of consumer choices in environmental impact and includes a "Think Before You Eat" billboard over a Las Vegas McDonald's restaurant.
In other cases, the appeals are more oblique, such as Walmart incorporating reusable shopping bags into TV ads that aren't ostensibly about sustainability issues. NBC took a similar "behavior placement" tack across a number of shows during its "Green Week" in November, including a scene with people loading a pickup truck with recyclables on "Heroes" and another showing an Army recruiter using green light bulbs on "Law and Order SVU." Fox, meanwhile, rolls out a series of promos April 20 showing talent in a number of its shows encouraging consumers to take environmentally friendly steps -- the cast of "Glee," for example, will encourage the purchase of recycled products and home-energy audits.
Green marketing "used to be more about the journey [companies] were taking," said Adam Werbach, CEO of the Saatchi & Saatchi S sustainability practice and former Sierra Club CEO who was instrumental in spurring Walmart Stores' sustainability efforts. "Now it's more about taking the journey along with the consumer. I think it's generally a very good trend."
It can, however, be controversial. Mr. Werbach points to Chevron's five-year-old "Will You Join Us" campaign that, among other things, asked consumers to carpool more and drive differently. "One reason it was controversial," he said, "was that it seemed to require consumers to take a bigger step than the company was taking."
On the other hand, he said consumers in focus groups generally give high marks to Coke's "Give It Back" campaign from Leo Burnett Co., Chicago, which asks for smaller steps in consumer behavior, such as focusing on getting consumers to recycle bottles by showing things that can be made from them, such as T-shirts and lawn furniture. The marketer's latest iteration of green advertising is a "Let's All Join Fins" digital and print campaign in which the brand will donate $1 to the Ocean Conservancy for each of its 1.5 million Facebook fans who change their profile pictures to ocean-related images.
Keeping the message positive is a key factor to success, said Ashley Grace, strategic campaign development expert at ComScore's ARSgroup, the copy-testing firm that has an ARSgreen offshoot to evaluate green-marketing approaches. "The guilt approach doesn't work at all," he said, adding that he doesn't think the approach in the Hanes ad will be effective.
Jan Valentic, who recently became the first chief sustainability officer for Scotts Miracle-Gro after a career in marketing with Ford and WPP's Wunderman, likewise sees a shift toward focusing on what consumers do in sustainability communications. "I actually think it's part of companies' responsibilities to educate consumers on how they can incorporate more sustainable practices into their everyday life," she said. "I liken it to some of the beer manufacturers educating people on responsible drinking and having designated drivers." For Scotts, she said, that includes telling consumers to mow their lawns high, leave the clippings on as compost and sweep any fertilizer that falls on sidewalks, streets and driveways back onto grass to avoid runoff into storm sewers.
Part of the reason marketers are shifting the focus to consumer behavior is that they're increasingly armed with data showing this is where the biggest opportunity for improvement truly lies. Such data is coming in large measure from another massive exercise in responsibility shifting, or perhaps better described as sharing -- for example, Walmart's encouragement, if not outright requirement, that all vendors conduct "Supplier Sustainability Assessments." What suppliers are often finding through such assessments is that most environmental impact in their product life cycles comes from use and disposal of products rather than materials, production, distribution or marketing.
For example, Unilever notes in its most recent sustainability report that it has reduced carbon-dioxide emissions by 41% and water use by 65% per ton of production since 1995, and it pledges to reduce absolute environmental impact as it seeks to double sales in the next 10 years. But in a letter accompanying the report, CEO Paul Polman noted that "for many of our products, consumers are responsible for 70% of the environmental impact." Unilever isn't telling Axe users to take cold showers just yet, but it and other detergent marketers are encouraging people to turn down the heat on laundry machines.
Like Unilever, Procter & Gamble isn't shirking its own sustainability targets, having reduced CO2 emissions and water use each by 52% per unit produced since 2002, per its most recent sustainability report. And it's pledging $50 billion in cumulative sales from products with improved environmental profiles.
But in a recent interview, P&G Group President-North America Melanie Healey said hot water used by consumers for washing clothes amounted to the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the life cycle of P&G products. So encouraging people to wash with cold water -- using Tide Coldwater, naturally -- is a centerpiece of the company's multi-brand "Future Friendly" initiative.
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Contributing: Brian Steinberg, Natalie Zmuda