A Clockwork Green

From trash bags to face cream, every brand right now is pitching a green product. What in the world does it mean anymore to say your brand is green? For too many consumers, unfortunately, not much. Stretched by brand managers over recent years to cover more and more ground, green has become an umbrella term for what is today a grab bag (albeit a reusable canvas one) of attributes, attitudes, values and behaviors. A colleague of mine recently told me he considers green to be shorthand for “behaving ethically.” But, remember when green just had to do with saving the planet?

Sure you do. It wasn’t too long ago that green enjoyed a reasonably narrow meaning. You or your brand were green if you or it embodied a substantive benefit to the earth’s environment. The thinking, to quote the Police, is when the world is running down, you make the best of what’s still around. Originally, green helped people to do that: slow down the wear, maximize the resources. Was a brand’s package recyclable? Were its contents biodegradable? Great-it was green.

The evolution that got us to where we are now was probably inevitable. Like ivy, green has grown out of its original container. It has morphed both in terms of its applications (there are not only green products, but also green companies and green practices) and in the way its definition is applied. So, a consumer isn’t just green if she puts recycled paper in the tray of her energy-efficient printer, but also if her shopping contributes to the sustainability of social and economic systems. If she supports local farmers by buying her vegetables at the local green market, for example, or if she looks for Fair Trade Certified products that guarantee third-world producers a high market price for their raw goods — that’s green, too.

In a branding context, this hyper-broadening of what had been a simple term has begun to cause serious confusion — the last thing any successful marketing campaign needs. Consider this: Right now, if a company claims that its product is green, what exactly is it telling the consumer about that product? Your guess is as good as mine.

Is it that the product’s packaging is made from recycled material? Does it mean that the company has corporate programs that give back to its local community? Or might it mean only that the company uses energy-efficient computers at headquarters?

Or maybe it’s that the materials comprising the product are nontoxic. Or that by using the product, the consumer will use less energy. Maybe it could be some unique combination of these things — or a whole host of other things.

So here we are, clamoring to claim that our products are green at just the moment when the term green has become meaningless.

What’s a brand to do? I believe it’s time for the marketing community to develop an entirely new green nomenclature — one that uses the broad “green” label, but combines it with other key terms that would precisely connote the ways a product (or its packaging or the manufacturer) is green.

For example, a label such as “Green Community Contributor” would clearly tell consumers that a brand has programs that give back. If a shopper were to encounter a label that read “Green Nonpolluting Packaging,” he’d be clear that the doodad he was about to buy would not pollute the ground water table if it happened to fall out the window.

The new nomenclature should also provide a unique term for each of the various ways that a product is made from green materials. “Green Nontoxic,” for example, would denote a product created out of all-natural, nontoxic ingredients.