It sounds so lovely: Companies rescue our put-upon planet by making their operations environmentally sound and offering green products. And they get rich as consumers reward them for this virtuous behavior. There is even a ready-made phrase for it, "doing well by doing good," which no doubt has been reduced to the acronym DWBDG in many corporate memos.
The catch, to judge by research we'll get to in a moment, is that consumers won't necessarily be eager to play along. Companies will have to get greener, all right, whether they want to or not. But for their labors to resonate profitably with consumers, they'll have to deal with an admixture of skepticism and indifference, while also figuring out which audiences are most receptive to their efforts. And they'll need to cope with the fact that increasing numbers of their competitors are doing the same thing.
In these circumstances, marketers can't afford a naive assumption that consumers will gratefully repay them for their troubles on behalf of the planet. They'll need to be smarter about the often-inhospitable environment in which they're operating.
How green are consumers?
The challenge marketers face is partly a function of consumers' own equivocal commitment to the environment. Surveys do consistently show people voicing strong support for environmental protection. In a typical example, when asked last winter by Mediamark Research & Intelligence to "rate how important preserving the environment is as a guiding principle in your life," 63 percent of men and 64 percent of women deemed it "very important." Likewise, a Washington Post/ABC News/Stanford University poll last spring found 94 percent of respondents saying they were willing (including 50 percent "very willing") "personally to change some of the things you do in order to improve the environment." But this is the sort of subject about which it's awfully easy for people to pay lip service when a pollster asks whether they'd like to save the planet from despoliation.
So, how much are mainstream consumers in earnest when they describe their actions and attitudes on this issue? "No question there is a lot of 'aspirational' commitment, as opposed to real commitment, by consumers at this point," says Mike Lawrence, executive vp of corporate responsibility at Boston-based Cone, an Omnicom company whose specialties include cause-related branding. "People are more willing to change their lightbulbs than their lifestyles." But Lawrence adds that people are "open to practical environmental ideas they can implement, albeit with as little pain as possible." And he regards this as a first step that augurs more involvement. "Behavior change is a journey. There's a lot more to come, to be driven by education, the changing cost of things and regulation," he says.
When it asks about specifics of green behavior, polling tends to confirm that mainstream consumers have learned to talk the talk but are still in the baby-steps phase of walking the walk. A new TNS survey found just 26 percent of Americans saying they "actively seek environmentally friendly products." In a global poll by Nielsen (Adweek's parent company), about half the respondents said they'd forgo packaging provided for "convenience purposes" if it would help the environment, but only 27 percent would give up packaging designed to keep products "clean and untouched by others." More broadly, in a Gallup poll fielded prior to this year's Earth Day, fewer than one-third of respondents (28 percent) claimed to have made "major changes" in their own shopping and living habits over the past five years to help protect the environment.
None of this, however, means consumers will cut much slack to companies that are conspicuously neglectful in their behavior. The irony, as noted in a recent report by BBMG (a New York- and San Francisco-based branding and integrated-marketing firm that works with "values-driven" companies and organizations), is that consumers are more demanding of the corporate sector than of themselves. Think of it as a case of individuals outsourcing environmental responsibility to big business. "We do see a 'green-action gap,' where consumers expect more from companies than they actually do themselves," says Raphael Bemporad, a founding partner of BBMG. And that leads to one of the asymmetries in consumer attitudes: People who are tepid about rewarding virtuous companies could well be energetic about punishing the unvirtuous. A Cone poll last spring found 85 percent of Americans saying they'd consider switching brands due to "a company's negative corporate responsibility practices."
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