When you think about it, marketing is really simple: to offer products and services that solve people’s real problems. If it is so straight forward, then, why is it that the market place keeps getting flooded with new products without any real benefits to the consumers? I call that phenomenon, marketers’ amnesia. Nowhere is marketers’ amnesia more in display than with the so called ‘green market’ . Here to remind us once more of that important marketing premise, are some excerpts from a recent article from Steven Bishop, Sustainability Domain Lead at IDEO, in the Harvard Business Review.
It seems so logical on the face of it. A company wishing to go green should focus on the green consumer, right? Not so. Marketing to the green consumer has proved difficult, even downright dangerous, for companies large and small. Here’s why.
Established companies fear alienating their base of mainstream consumers by appealing to the green consumer, and rightly so. The majority of consumers seek to satisfy their personal needs before considering those of the planet. Green for green’s sake products often don’t meet the basic needs that most people require from their products. Take hemp clothing, for example. If green for green’s sake products could go mainstream, we’d all be wearing hemp sweaters and be happy about it.
Small, streamlined green brands that truly appeal to the environmentalist consumer can’t reach the mainstream. Those companies get stuck in a green ghetto—virtuous, but limited in scope.
The result is that most companies are stuck somewhere in the middle—and that turns out to be a very dangerous place indeed. We’ve all watched a company take a traditional product and tout its green virtues. When the approach doesn’t work all that well, they simply take out a bigger megaphone. Hence the green-washing epidemic we have today.
So while the traditional marketing answer to the question, Should we market to the green consumer? has been yes, the better answer is this: Instead of focusing on a green niche, focus on green behaviors that everyone can aspire to.
When we helped Shimano, an international manufacturer of bike parts, create a new bike platform, we didn’t focus on cycling enthusiasts—the biggest segment in this market—or on the green niche. Instead we focused on a growth strategy with a “green outcome”—more people riding bikes and enjoying it. As a result, we turned our attention to the 161 million Americans who don’t ride at all.
Our work with Shimano yielded two insights: 1) everyone fondly remembers biking as a kid; 2) highly technical sports bikes and lycra-clad salespeople in bike stores put off would-be everyday riders. So Shimano pitched a concept bike to manufacturers that was intuitive and inviting. Mechanical components were hidden, handlebars were stripped of complex controls, and pedals, were well, just pedals.
They called it the “Coasting” bike. Nothing to learn, just jump on and go, like when you were a kid. That’s what gets people riding.
So where’s the environmental story here? Well, there isn’t an explicit one. Shimano is addressing a human problem, not an environmental one. By seeking the truth about what really matters to people and creating a great experience for them, the company is appealing to a mass market increasingly aware of our impact on the planet. Coasting bikes tell the green story implicitly by inviting people to engage in new, positive behaviors—like reducing greenhouse gases by pedaling—instead of driving.
For a company that wants to go green, then, the green consumer niche is almost irrelevant. I’m reminded of HBS professor Ted Levitt‘s old marketing axiom that people who buy drills don’t need drills; they need holes. Consumers—whether they are green or mainstream—don’t simply want green products, they want solutions to their day-to-day problems that also make sense for our environment.
The bottom line: Marketing needs to define what sustainability means for their company and then decide how to express those values in their offerings. Companies should stop trying to appeal to green consumers by building green myths into the products they have and start creating something real—products that tell their environmental story for them.
Bottom line is, green marketers, beware of marketing amnesia. To help, I suggest you print a copy of Ted Levitt‘s classic article, Marketing Myopia, and that you read it again every time you think of launching a new product.