Q&A: Penney Eyes ‘Light Green’ Consumers

Since March, environmental lifestyle expert and author Danny Seo has been showing J.C. Penney shoppers that it’s easy being green by identifying store products such as organic cotton towels and bamboo bowls, and giving the products a Simply Green distinction (a program created by J.C. Penney). Brandweek’s Becky Ebenkamp recently chatted with Seo about Penney’s green program, Seo’s eco-friendly Simmons mattress line and plans to extend his personal brand to other categories.

You bill yourself as an “environmental lifestyle expert.” What does that mean?

Danny Seo: It’s a little bit of a vague title, but basically I help people who are sort of dreaming about going green become doers. The way that I do that is I provide a lot of how-to instructive content in my books, my TV shows and magazine column and Web site that basically gives people the 101 they’re looking for. Then through product licensing and product development that’s where we’re delivering a lot of the tools.

BW: How did you get involved with J.C. Penney?
DS: I had the idea about creating this brand a couple of years ago and went to book publishers before green became this cultural tipping point and no one thought it would ever be mainstream. Then all of a sudden when gas prices started skyrocketing and magazines were doing green issues, in one single week we probably got a call from half a dozen retailers. I thought it was a conspiracy. It was almost like everyone felt they’d discovered what I was doing when I’d been pitching for years. It was everyone from mass-market discount to super-luxury retailers. What I liked about J.C. Penney was it was an opportunity to really help create product where price would be affordable for most of America. We could actually break this whole misconception that green has to be expensive. And they actually listened to me. They weren’t just interested in having a spokesperson, they really wanted a true partner in terms of product development to internal employee training and dot-com and everything you can imagine.

BW: What does the Simply Green program entail?
DS: We tried to make our campaign simple and straightforward. When you talk about the green space, it can get very confusing and overwhelming. Basically, Simply Green is a product designation: We locate products that we sell under our private label brands that are recyclable, renewable or organic. And we might be adding another bucket, which is energy savings. Instead of customers having to go through a whole re-education process all they have to do is look for our logo and they know that this towel or this bed set or this vase has some kind of a green tenet to it.

BW: Was there any fear that by designating certain products as green you were pointing out that other J.C. Penney products were less so?
DS: The work that I do is I talk to a ‘light green’ customer. There’s a philosophy that you can either be among the 5 percent who live their lives green 95 percent of the time or you can be the 95 percent who live their lives green 5 percent of the time. And that’s where the majority of our customer is, in that 95 percent. When you’re developing this type of campaign, you can never let the fear of being called out on it stop you from doing it. The reality is, green isn’t a trend that’s in one moment and out the next. It was a cultural shift, when the mass middle started gravitating toward green. When Toyota went from the most unpopular to the number one car company in America with hybrid technology, we realized it was important for J.C. Penney to focus on the green effort, but to do it in a very authentic way. Our little motto is that “every day matters” and every day we go a little bit greener too. It’s not just like flicking a switch, that’s impossible.