The delicate task of marketing 'green'

People who don't automatically buy the greenest product available have to be persuaded those products are just as good as what they're used to.

The Federal Trade Commission revised its "Green Guides" a little earlier this year to dissuade companies from saying their products are good for the planet if they're not. But branding and marketing departments might say a bigger problem than so-called "greenwashing" is getting mainstream consumers to care about eco-friendly products at all.

I talked to Cascades, the personal paper products company, about a new product it's been developing this year. It's an expansion of the company's "Moka" line of brown tinge napkins and paper towels, instead of pure white. The brown products save on water, and don't require bleach. Cascades launched a beige toilet paper this year, a first for North America. At first, the developers tried just skipping the bleach.

"The product came out really gray and dirty," says Isabelle Faivre, a marketing director at Cascades. "It didn't look high-end at all."

The company experimented with different amounts of corrugated fiber, a.k.a. used cardboard boxes. At 20 percent, they got the light beige overtone they wanted. But the company knew it had to balance the factors that are at the top of the list for customers buying toilet paper first. Absorbency, strength and, above all, softness are key.

Cascades vice president of North American sales, Denis Lion, says the task seemed crazy. The final result was surprising even to him.

"We just never thought you'd be able to get the softness to the level that we did," he says. A sample roll in the Marketplace office elicted comments ranging from: "Great, soft, I'd totally buy it," to saying, upon sight only, "Get that away from me."

Cascades launched its Moka tissue for businesses only, the "away from home" market. Lion says early adopters were companies eager to go green. Think independent coffee shops and boutique hotels. Then, college campuses caught on, looking to show students their sustainability efforts. Cascades expects to expand out its beige toilet paper to retail stores next year. Getting people to use a product away from home, when it's the only option, is much different than getting them to choose it from a shelf of white, fluffy competitors.

"People say one thing, and do quite another thing," says Debbie Millman, president of the design group of Sterling Brands. She says in focus groups people want to sound good, so they say they want green products. But at the store, especially on a budget, they go with products they know.

"People do still want something comfortable, they want something delicious and they want something that's going to make them feel good," she says. "They don't want a trade-off."

To achieve broad appeal, she says, a green product has to work as well -- or better than -- regular stuff. It also has to cost the same or less. And people have to understand why the product is different, but still appealing.

"We require a completely different approach when it comes to the mainstream," says Freya Williams, co-founder of OgilvyEarth, a division of the ad company. Her research on the "green gap" shows about 15 percent of Americans are "Super Greens." They care a lot about the planet and buy accordingly. Images like polar bears or tree frogs or burlap packaging totally works on them. But 66 percent of consumers she calls "Middle Greens." If you get too earthy with them, "It signals it's for a crunchy granola hippie or a rich elitist snob. Not them. We have to lose the crunch," she says.

One way to do that? Make green products about "the future," she says. Hybrid cars would do better to be sold as high tech, high performance vehicles, not eco-friendly as the primary message. And don't mention a climate change apocalypse, she says. Because fear isn't the emotion you want to instill around, say, beer. Beer is what comes to mind for Williams when she sums up what green products need.

"We need our Bud Light moment for sustainability marketing," she says.

The goal is to make green normal, she says, to have earth-friendly products blend in and add value on the shelf and in people's lives.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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