Greenwashing and the cynicism meter

During a recent browse through London Drugs, I spotted this interesting packaging for a laundry detergent (please excuse the quality of my cell phone’s photography).

What caught my eye was the down-to-earth packaging. There were no ‘shout-out-loud’ colours with a gloss finish, just a drab, ‘whole wheat’ cardboard look. A closer examination of the packaging made me realise what was going on. Here’s what I perceived in the first few moments of noticing the bottles:

  • The green leaf and oddly placed asterisk/sun icon made me want to find and read some kind of disclaimer, in other words, my cynicism meter started twitching.
  • The packaging is obviously made from, or supposed to resemble, recycled cardboard. Embossed in the indentation were the barely-discernible words ‘eco logic’.
  • The word ‘Natural’ on the label  made me think ‘Enviro-friendly or greenwashing?’.

My perceptions coalesced into this assessment:

  • The Seventh Generation brand is all about natural, environmentally friendly cleaning products and recycled packaging.

Interest piqued, I’m off to the website for more info.

A quick search on Bing (Google’s new privacy infractions have caused me to switch search engines) brought up this home page:

Nicely laid out, clean and crisp as you expect your shirts would be after using a 4x natural detergent. I browsed the website quickly to get a feel for what was going on, and my cynicism meter dropped to zero. These guys appear to be the real deal.

So why did I doubt them?

Well, there has been a lot of greenwashing going on. Greenwashing is the practice of ‘pretending’ to be environmentally friendly. It’s just plain old bad marketing. So when I see someone claiming to be natural, eco-friendly, and green, I go looking to make sure they’re walking the talk. And you can bet your last penny many other consumers do the same. If I believe the company is exaggerating or lying to me, I won’t go near its products.

Why would I? They’re liars. And my doubt can only be eliminated by providing the right information – the information that builds my trust.

So, what eliminated my scepticism?

The company’s website provides so much information, it’s scary. BUT, they do it using short videos. And where they use text, it’s in relatively small, easily understood bites. It all speaks with a consistent theme, in a coherent manner to support the brand concept.

Look at the little yellow box in the bottom right corner of the website home page. It says:

“We have saved 489,645 trees or 1,509,383 barrels of petroleum. Learn how.”

In short, they make it easy to see the proof that they walk the talk. The brand promise is delivered – no greenwashing, no need for caution. So now, every time I see the Seventh Generation brand, I trust it.

And trust is one thing your brand and marketing communications should always build.

(Not sure about the Lorax promo though!) 


The Guardian’s Strategic Branding

The UK’s The Guardian newspaper, renown for investigating and breaking the story of News Corp’sscandalous phone hacking practices,  is now solidifying its branding with an incredibly creative multi-platform brand awareness campaign.

Using a children’s fairytale as the core of the ads, the campaign presents The Guardian as a tireless, truth-seeking, investigative news medium that goes beyond traditional print. A Marketing Week article explains the branding as a strategic move to help the ‘paper become a revenue-generating machine across all digital channels – web, social media, mobile, print, etc.

I think this a brilliant idea, and the execution is worthy of the ‘paper’s premium positioning. As consumers source their news from global media – New York Times, The Guardian, The Economist, et al – national flagship newspapers will be start competing more directly. Staking its claim now as the deliverer of fair and balanced reporting means The Guardian will have a strong market position for the battles to come.

The reason this concept works is very simple. Branding is based on cultural archetypes, that is, universally understood symbols and representations that act as shortcuts to instant understanding. In the video, we see the Three Little Pigs – cultural icons of innocence, frailty, and victimisation – become insurance fraudsters and murderers (is this perhaps a sly reference to News Corp?). By turning the universally accepted on its head, The Guardian is positioned as seeing beyond the first impression, as ready to look beyond the obvious and the accepted truth, in order to find the REAL truth.

Watch the video and read the Marketing Week article here.

See The Guardian’s explanation of its concept here.

Value determined by rarity

Welcome to 2012. A year in which the confusion and uncertainty of 2011 will continue to make strategic and marketing planning difficult. And to add to your woes, here’s a thought for those who think they’ll throw a stack of money at social media advertising this year in order to ride out the turmoil:

Most commentary on social media ignores an obvious truth—that the value of things is largely determined by their rarity. The more people tweet, the less attention people will pay to any individual tweet. The more people “friend” even passing acquaintances, the less meaning such connections have. As communication grows ever easier, the important thing is detecting whispers of useful information in a howling hurricane of noise. For speakers, the new world will be expensive. Companies will have to invest in ever more channels to capture the same number of ears. For listeners, it will be baffling. Everyone will need better filters—editors, analysts, middle managers and so on—to help them extract meaning from the blizzard of buzz.

You can read The Economist article from which this was taken here.

And, to make you smile, a great idea and an excellent video. What has a pretty flight attendant, salt flats, paratroopers, sushi, and rock band, Falconer? A great piece of creative!

Mini USA asked people to enter a  contest to describe ‘the best test drive ever’. Matthew Foster of Portland won and his idea was made into this video. Enjoy!

Returning to the Basics

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In a day and age when everyone is talking about social media and mobile apps, I think it’s important to step back and take a look at the basics. After all, you will not be mentioned on blogs, Facebook, or Twitter, nor sought after by someone standing on a street corner with iPhone in hand unless you have a strong product concept.

A strong product concept must have utility value and it must be representative of the type of person you think will buy it. It doesn’t have to be the coolest. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, fastest, most beautiful, or any other superlative you can think of, for it to succeed. But, it must be functional and practical, and have a brand that connects with its target.

Nothing bears this out better than the Citroen 2CV. You can read Peter Cheney’s fond memory of this insect-looking car here.

If you don’t have the time to read the article, let me explain it quickly. In his brief memoir, Cheney compares the 2CV’s performance against the expectations of today’s motorists, and it fails spectacularly. In fact, it probably fails in comparison to almost anything that has ever been on the road. But Citroen sold over 4 million of them in a production run that lasted from 1942 to 1990 – 48 years!

How did they manage it?

Well, it was a strong product concept that connected with its target. It was designed for a specific market in a specific place at a specific time in history. The product concept addressed the market conditions under which the target was suffering – poor infrastructure (roads were either cobblestoned or cratered by bombs), fuel rations, a lack of steel, and the target market was highly agrarian (it had to be able to transport farmers’ eggs without breaking them).

The brand, Citroen, and the 2CV’s shape were very French. They exuded everything French. The 2CV became an icon at a time when nationalism was necessary to propel the country to liberty, and, after the war, to economic recovery. The brand, which in this case includes the design of the car, spoke to its target audience.

Given the market conditions and the market’s needs, what other product could have succeeded as well as the 2CV? Not many, certainly not the SUVs or luxury cars produced today.  Probably not even the low-end vehicles. All the marketing, advertising, social media, and sales promos in the world would not have succeeded in selling anything else under those market conditions.

Which is something we need to consider today. With all the talk about social media and mobile apps, we need to examine the product or service we are promoting. Is it a sufficiently strong concept to generate word-of-mouth? Will the brand (which can include the product design) connect with the audience so they feel it is a part of their personal identity?

Without addressing those two questions, your social media marketing campaign will fail. No one talks about mundane products or mediocre design. Why would they? They talk about the things that represent them as a person, the things they are passionate about. And you can only create that passion by doing things well, just as the Citroen 2CV did – the right product in the right place at the right time.

Beyond the Top-10 Most Valuable Bands

Here’s an interesting article about the value of the world’s top 100 brands. The top 10 is what one would expect it to be, but some of the lesser-valued brands might surprise you.

What is also interesting is just many of the top 100 originated from the US. I count almost 50. Say what you like about their economy, they obviously know how to create brands.

Try to guess the two representatives from Canada before you click here to view the article.

Online couponing – you’ve heard the pros, here are some cons.

You’ve probably heard the hype surrounding Groupon, LivingSocial, DealFind, et al. You might have been told that they will give you oodles of new clients, more revenues, and at a cost much less than through usual marketing or advertising efforts. And while that might all be true, there are a lot of shortcomings you should know about if you are considering this form of promotion.

  1. Couponing of any kind is more than just a mass discount. It is a statement about the value of your product/service. By offering the deep discounts these online coupons typically require, you are telling the market that your product/services are not worth as much as you regularly charge.
  2. Mass couponing reaches a new audience for you, true. But is it the right audience for you? Coupon users are seekers of inexpensive solutions. They are not loyal customers. They are not return purchasers. Why would you create a huge incentive to attract an audience that will not support you in the future? Why not reward your loyal customers, instead, and shore up a solid client base?
  3. “Brand awareness can be built by reaching a large subscriber audience”. We argue that this isn’t necessarily in your best interest. Coupon subscribers will see your company name, sure. But are they people who you want to see your name (see Point 2 above)? And brand awareness is not brand recall. Brand recall means prospective customers will remember you when they have a need for your product/services.  A limited offer coupon will not generate recall among an appropriate target audience. Frequency and repetition will create brand recall, and mass couponing is not altogether designed for that.
  4. It’s also true that you could be inundated by new customers. But are you ready to serve a large influx of new clients? Consider the damage to your brand if all you do is create a large group of disgruntled customers. This article details the sorry experiences of some businesses in Australia who were unable to meet the demand created by their online coupons.
  5. Clones of clones of clones of online coupons have appeared out of nowhere. Who do you register with? Are they scrupulous? How do you know? Who does the consumer register with, and why?
  6. You can’t force a square peg into a round hole. You have to ask yourself: Is your business suited to mass online coupons? If the answer is no, don’t try to force it. For example, if your branding is based around superior value, why would you discount it?

Mass couponing might have one big benefit, though. Companies that make money from ephemeral products/services (for example, massage therapists on hourly fees) lose money when they don’t have any clients. An astute business operator will plan bookings to ensure optimal production time and attempt to maximise revenue-generating opportunities. Inevitably, though, gaps will occur, hours will be lost, and revenues will go unrealised.

Any downtimes you might have coming up could be filled by Groupon-style coupons. For example, if a massage therapist knows there is a slow week in July, a mass coupon could be worthwhile. Even at a savage discount, enough revenue should be generated by the promotional offer to cover costs that might otherwise have eaten into profits. By keeping your production assets working, even while generating lower prices, your business will not be losing money.

Before providing a discount, and certainly before you sign up for mass coupon offers, think about the implications. Ask yourself if it’s the right choice for your business. And if in doubt, call us for some advice.

Finally, a cautionary word for consumers: Do you know who from whom you are buying the coupons? Personal experience has shown that not all companies will honour their coupon offers. A business caught unprepared for an overwhelming response might never be able to provide you with the services for which you have paid up-front.

The Death of Traditional Marketing is Greatly Exaggerated

The globally respected market researcher, Nielsen, released a report in June 2011 that proved traditional marketing media in the US are growing at a healthy pace. Nielsen’s report, which you can read for yourself here, compared Q1 2011 ad spends to Q1 2010 ad spends. Here is what they found:

  1. Advertising in television grew by 9% to reach USD$18.8-billion
  2. Radio was second, growing by 6% to reach USD$1.6-billion
  3. Magazine advertising grew by 7% to reach USD$3.5-billion
  4. Newspaper advertising declined by 10% to USD$2.8-billion

And the industries spending most of that money? In order of total spend:

  1. Automotives
  2. Quick service restaurants
  3. Pharmaceuticals
  4. Mobile telecoms
  5. Motion pictures

‘So what?’, you might be asking. Well, consider this. Much of the recent marketing talk (more like a loud roar, really) in the news media has focused mostly on social media. Valuations of Facebook at USD$10-billion, LinkedIn’s IPO at USD$3-billion but growing post-launch to nearly USD$9-billion, and Google and Facebook mulling a takeover of Twitter, have all highlighted the marketing potential of social media. Why else would website companies be worth so much? Their only source of value is the subscriber data they make readily available to marketers who can use it to create highly cost-effective and very targeted marketing campaigns.

So why would traditional media ad spends increase by so much when powerful social media is competing with them for advertisers’ dollars? Traditional marketing media is less targeted than social media, and they don’t provide near-real-time tracking data that social media can. And yet, these companies are spending more on traditional media?

Look at the industries with the biggest spends. 80% of them are mature industries that are older than the Internet. These are industries that helped create contemporary advertising. They know what it means to engage in marketing. They virtually invented it. Why haven’t they jumped on the bandwagon and put all that money into social media?

The fact is, all of the biggest spenders in traditional marketing know something that the news media hasn’t yet made public. Smart marketers know that social media on its own will deliver only so many prospective clients. They know that social media is cluttered with hundreds of millions of people all broadcasting their own updates and brand preferences all at the same time. The clutter is made worse when you throw in advertising and contesting. Competing for attention is becoming tougher on social media.

They also know that, more than anything, the goal is to drive people to the company’s website where the company’s story can be told in greater detail, where trust can be built, and products can be sold. While it is possible to use social media for reaching out to customers, it is much more effective when you complement a social media campaign with traditional marketing methods. The traditional marketing media act as wide-cast nets, engaging and funnelling prospective clients into social media, and sending them on to the website or in to a store.

In short, traditional media makes prospective customers aware of you. Create enough interest, and they will go to your website to learn more about you. Do it right, and they will refer via social media friends and family to your company.

Online marketing has become an imperative inclusion in every organisation’s marketing toolkit. It is now, more than ever before, a strategic consideration that must be treated separately to advertising and promotion, and be given equal attention to all other marketing endeavours if it is going to achieve optimal results. As a component of an integrated marketing strategy, online marketing will achieve optimal results when it meshes with a traditional media campaign.

You can read more about it in our Clarity Paper, which you can download here.

To clarify: Social media and an online presence have a strategic role in any marketing plan, but they are far more effective when strategically integrated with traditional marketing media