Q&A with Jacquie Ottman: Improved ‘Green’ Products ‘Held Their Value’ Through the Economic Recession

Orlando Bloom with a Toyota Prius. Photo: WireImage

Prior to the economic meltdown, brands all over the place were intensely focused on marketing “green” and eco-friendly products to consumers who had developed a heightened awareness about environmental issues. With tough economic times, there was concern that a focus on value meant this environmental concern would be pushed aside.

We spoke with Jacquelyn Ottman, founder of J. Ottman Consulting, a New York-based ad agency, and author of the new book The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools, and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding about how to market “green” in 2011.

For tips, read our Q&A after the jump.

It seems like we were just talking about the growth of sustainable marketing and the popularity of all things green. How did it become mainstream?

The mass media took a hold of this thanks to celebrities like Ed Begley Jr. and Bette Midler and celebrities that rolled up to the 2005 Oscars in Toyota Priuses.

And you also have a lot of products right now that appeal to the mainstream. The big manufacturers finally figured out how to serve up products that work just as well or even better than the products they are meant to replace. This is very different from the kinds of products that we saw in the early days of the green movement – the early 70s, right around the time of the first Earth Day in 1969 – where you had a lot of laundry detergents that didn’t work and compact fluorescent light bulbs that cast a green haze. Now the products actually work and they’re being sold in places like Walmart and Home Depot and Target and they’re being made by big-name manufacturers like Procter & Gamble.

How do we balance a green marketing highlight with the commonplace nature of green goods these days?

My advice and the advice that I give in the book is that manufacturers and marketers need to focus on the prime benefit or the reason why consumers buy a certain type of product in the first place. The Toyota Prius, to use that example again, appeals to people on a number of fronts in addition to the fact that it’s easier on the planet. It was first embraced by techies because it performed better. There are a lot of people who drive the Prius because it’s a status and fashion symbol right now. And then there are those people for whom the Toyota Prius, even though it’s premium-priced, on a long-term basis represents cost savings because they can save on fuel.

One of the concerns from the economic recession was that the consumption of green products was going to plummet after rising so high. How has the economy impacted green marketing?

Green products took a hit just the same way all products took a hit. But green products either don’t have to cost more, so they’re competitively priced these days, or the ones that cost more typically provide consumers with enough value so that the consumer is willing to pay more. One of the reasons consumers will pay more for a green product is when there’s a perceived health benefit. So a lot of new mothers will buy organic produce for their small children.

Even in the recession, green products held their value because in general they’re proving to consumers that they are worth more to consumers these days.

In your book, you mention six strategies of sustainable marketing communications: know your customer, appeal to consumer self-interest, educate and empower, reassure on performance, engage the community, and be credible. Where does the sustainable part come in? Those sound pretty general.

The environmental part is incorporated throughout. So when I talk about “know your customer,” I’m saying understand the environmental issues that your customer is most concerned about and address those.

Another rule is to educate and empower. We worked on an advertising campaign for HSBC retail bank here in the U.S. and we focused on a message – “There’s no small change.” We provided a number of tips that consumers could use to reduce their own carbon footprint similar to the way the bank had. The environment is integrated into these strategies.