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Flack Attack: Corporations Prepare to “Target Green”

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by Worldchanging local blogger, Brian Smith:

On May 5, 2007, PR Week (a national trade journal) held an ambitious event "Target Green: Making Sustainability Work." The stated goal of the conference was to highlight how corporations are "making meaningful changes that benefit the company, and the planet, and how PR and marketing play a crucial role." Spokespeople at the conference came from some of the largest corporations on Earth: GE, Dow Chemical, Dell, Sun Microsystems, Siemens, UTC, Phillips, and even, ExxonMobil.

Up on stage left and right, jumbotron screens flashed the names of the sponsors: big media, food companies, and international marketing firms. Next, single words flash in Orwellian repetition in white letters on green background: "Authenticity," "Credibility," "Responsibility," "Sustainability."

The timing of such an event was clear. Green marketing has become the 21st century’s version of “Customer Knows Best.” And without a working knowledge of Green marketing, corporate PR teams would fall hopelessly behind the curve. Massive piles of investor cash are headed in the direction of Green products and companies. To catch the wave, every company must find a way to describe what they do as environmental. And to a certain extent, we did that.


By making it profitable.

Welcome to “Green Day”

Jim Cramer, CNBC’s raving stock picker, recently declared that April 2, 2007 was “Green Day.” That was the day the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA should regulate greenhouse gases as pollution, defying a reluctant Bush administration. After Green Day, environmental investments were officially in play and an essential component of every investor’s portfolio.

A session on the future of “green” tech was quite informative. Erica Jacobs, from Sun Microsystems PR team described her company as the “Prius” of the tech industry. Sun has developed an energy-efficient server that is now one of the company’s most successful products. The goal, Jacobs said, is to reduce the carbon footprint of computing. The Internet is a huge energy suck and with millions of new people coming online each week globally, the need for more efficient technology is clear. “Every time you buy on eBay or send an email, you contribute to global warming,” said Jacobs. Going Green has given Sun a market advantage. Jacobs confessed, “We’re green in part, because we are making a lot of money at it.”

Questions that did not get asked, What do to with all the e-waste of discarded computers or toxins produced in silicon chip manufacturing? Or why high tech companies always need to have suburban campuses, rather than headquarters in cities closer to transit and housing. Maybe next conference.

In a discussion of food, Byron Freney of The Hartman Group (a market research firm specializing in health and wellness products) described the evolution of the organics market. He explained that the price barrier once posed by organic labels is no longer a problem. “People will pay for things they think are better, and organics are a symbol of good taste.” The key for food companies is to push the concepts “freshness,” “unpackaged” and “artesian.” Humans who eat, it seems, now prefer “food with a story behind it.” Who knew?

Ted Smyth from Heinz declared the mass marketing of organics a “great thing” as well as “local sourcing.” Customers now feel a great deal of faith in the concept of Organic since it is regulated by the federal government. The panel also agreed that genetically modified food, while a huge issue for consumers in Europe, was not as big a concern for American consumers. To test this theory the panel’s moderator asked the audience to hold up their hands if they worried about GMOs in their foods. The results were nearly split 50-50. In Europe, in a similar crowd, objections to GMOs would runs closer to 90 percent, he explained.

So far so good.

Some corporations out there get it. Deliver quality, environmentally responsible products, and you will win new customers. There even was a warning not to oversell the greenness of your company if you can’t back it up. Peter Warrick of MWW Group (a national PR firm) encouraged businesses to tread lightly in the Green marketing world. “Young companies need to understand nobody IS green. We are working toward sustainability, but it is still a goal.”

The most confessional moment of the day came in a keynote by Paul Zeven, CEO of Phillips North America. Greenpeace India recently declared Phillips a “Climate Villain.” Activists were protesting the fact that Phillips India is still producing incandescent light bulbs and has yet to mass produce energy-sipping, compact fluorescent bulbs.

Phillips, explained Zeven, had made a classic communications mistake by not promoting its environmental credentials enough. Phillips, he claimed, backs government measures to ban incandescent bulbs entirely and the company is ramping up production of CFLs in India. Keeping one’s head down is corporate tradition in Europe, but it doesn’t work on the international stage. If you have a Green story to tell, tell it. Zevan’s three rules of green marketing? Base your communications on proof; be ready to admit and correct mistakes; believe sustainability is the right thing to do for your company and yourself personally.

And now the moment you have all been waiting for, ExxonMobil (the Green company).

“We think that a company’s reputation is based in their concrete actions,” said Suzanne McCarron, manager of communications at ExxonMobil. This statement drew snickers even from this crowd of corporate marketers. Exxon has spent more than $19 million funding climate skeptic lobbies to muddy the science of global warming in the minds of the American people. The audacity of McCarron’s statement was appreciated by these professional flacks trained in spin like the fictional tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor, in “Thank You for Smoking.”

“Unflappable!” gushed the auto company publicist sitting behind me.

McCarron is indeed fearless. She soldiered on through her prepared remarks to what should have been a friendly, corporate audience. McCarron explained that Exxon has been making dramatic efforts toward addressing global warming by financing the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University and now is at the forefront of carbon sequestration research.

Then came a pointed question. The host of the panel said, “Thank you for your presentation. I have one question. What exactly is ExxonMobil’s position TODAY on global warming?”

Again, snickers and clapping from the audience.

McCarron recited a well-rehearsed retort. “ExxonMobil believes the evidence the planet is warming is clear. We are taking the issue of greenhouse gases very seriously.” Then she sat down.

General Electric’s team presented their "Ecomagination" initiative as the most successful sustainability PR campaign of its kind. Quite a feat for a company that spent $122 million between 1990 to 2005 on public relations, lobbying and legal efforts to fight against cleaning up its PCB contamination along 200 miles of the Hudson River. Dow Chemical presented their “Human Element” campaign, an effort to green up creator of Agent Orange, Napalm, and most recently, through its acquisition of Union Carbide in 2001, the inheritor of the assets and liabilities of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal, India - the worst industrial disaster in human history.

The cynicism of these campaigns can be breath taking.

That is why understanding the science of marketing is so important for green consumers. Have you seen that new 'natural' soda called Izze? It is very popular in green circles. This is because the packaging is intended to make you think, “unpackaged.” So simple and unadorned, just like your favorite Yoga teacher. These PR people are smart.

Luckily for green consumers, the more a company claims to be sustainable, the more we can hold them to account, and that is a very good thing. For example, if you hear that Company X donated $10 million to protect a rainforest, make sure they didn’t spend $150 million to tell you about it. Phillip Morris, the tobacco kings, once made this mistake, and it cost them in goodwill for years. Not that their product wasn’t doing them in already.

One the whole, the "Target Green" conference was a hopeful sign that we have created a “market signal.” The Green squeaky wheel is about to get greased.

Will we drive to “Green” WalMarts in “Green” traffic? Or will truly sustainable products be available everywhere, even at the green corner shop/farmers market, just steps from your transit line, and a few bikeable blocks home to your dinner table?

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A recent survey of Australian companies by PricewaterhouseCoopers, shows that environmental performance is not a critical concern to many businesses who say that they would like to improve their environmental performance but that it is not a necessity……… I have to disagree here!

66 per cent of public companies are active in improving their performance becasue they are aware of their due diligence risks, while only 51 per cent of private companies were actively pursuing improvement. …….. And small businesses are even slower taking this up.

Key factors highlighted by the survey were:
• Business owners were confused by future environmental issues and how they should respond to them.
• One in four companies believes that public concern about the environment would have no impact on their business.
• Half the businesses surveyed believe that growing public concern about the environment would create opportunities for those companies expecting to make money out of the environment and these would be more likely to invest in improving environmental performance.

My own market research has indicated that city based businesses are less likely to be aware of environmental problems, changes and implications than primary producers.

The fishing and aquaculture industries in particular are very aware of environmental concerns and of their need to deliver responsible environmental outcomes because their access to the fishing grounds and farm sites is under threat from increased regulation and heavy competition from the recreational sector.

Posted by: Jean Cannon on 20 May 07



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