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Selling Sustainability The Mr. Clean Way
Chris Turner, 27 Nov 08
Photo by Ashley Bristowe
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Change is a boutique marketing firm based in Vancouver – or, as per its requisite website mission statement, “a green branding and communications company.” Sounds pretty hazy. Actually, if it sounds like anything, it sounds like maybe they specialize in the fine art of the corporate greenwash. And if you merely glanced at their latest piece of work, a marketing study called “MapChange,” you might find such a prejudice confirmed.

I’m about to suggest that there might be more to Change – and “MapChange” – than that, but first I’ve got to unpack a bit of marketing-biz wonkery. Bear with me.

Okay. So “MapChange” is a “classic perceptual map” – a tool used by marketers to measure consumer perceptions of their products. In this case, the study gauged the “actual” vs. “perceived” sustainability of 20 major Canadian and international brands. Each brand was graded on 50 objective, yes-or-no criteria (everything from whether the company’s CEO had “identified” sustainability “as a priority” to whether it submits to a third-party audit of its environmental impact), and then 2,000-plus Canadians were surveyed as to their perceptions of the sustainability of each brand.

The result was an intriguing muddle. Toyota, buoyed by the walk-the-walk rep it’s earned via Prius sales, scored No. 1 on the perception scale, even though GM actually scored three places ahead of Toyota on the actual scale, with the highest marks in the whole field on the sustainability scorecard. (GM ranked 18th out of the 20 companies on the perception scale.) In a similar vein, trendy, progressively branded Apple ranked far better than sweatshop-tainted Nike on the perception scale – No. 5 vs. No. 17 – even though the two companies scored almost the exact inverse on the actual scale (Nike was No. 5, Apple was No. 15).

“There are many surprises,” the report concluded, “that suggest that better action doesn’t equal better perception. In general, there is a randomness to the findings that suggest very few brands have successfully branded sustainability.”

To which you might reasonably respond: So what? I mean, damn their oily greenwashing hides and let’s get on with the real bright green deal. Right?

I’d invite you instead to take a closer look. Start, if you’ll indulge me just a bit further, with the fact of this Vancouver-based boutique marketing firm called Change, and a few curious things about its origins.

Change was founded in 2005 by a corporate ad agency vet named Marc Stoiber. My first encounter with Stoiber was this riff under the eye-catching title of “Making Sustainability Sexy.” The core of his argument went like this:

Sustainability. Sexy. Two words you don't often see together. . . . A very big opportunity awaits if we – marketers, producers, and media – manage to somehow join these two words at the hip. . . . sustainability presents an opportunity to profit. Even better, it's an opportunity that hasn't been very well tapped. Sounds like a recipe for success. But how do we make sustainability sexy?

In the three years since Stoiber posted his riff, he has dedicated his career to answering this question. His boutique marketing firm – operating out of offices on Vancouver’s elegantly repurposed Granville Island – began by pestering the city’s growing cluster of green-minded entrepreneurs to rethink the way they sell themselves. Change scored some early successes in this crowd, but then the ghosts of Stoiber’s past came calling, and they’ve become the focus of his work and the inspiration for stuff like this “MapChange” study.

See, before 2005, Stoiber was a high-flying corporate pitchman – a creative director at award-winning, global-reach ad agencies like BBDO and Grey Worldwide. One of his most successful pre-Change exploits was the rebranding of Mr. Clean for Procter & Gamble. And one of his first lessons for the bright-green industrial world was that they could learn a lot from the way consumer goods behemoths like P&G think about marketing.

After all, these companies and their ad-land adjuncts have spent literally billions of dollars over the past half-century figuring out the art and science of persuasion. They know how to create desire where none exists, how to supplant one set of priorities with another, how to quickly convince millions of consumers to change their behavior. If they’ve used these tools mainly to persuade us to spend too much on sneakers and buy disposable junk we don’t need, that doesn’t mean these are the only uses of their techniques. In fact, wouldn’t such techniques be essential to the project of replacing an unsustainable economic order with a sustainable one? Especially in a fast-forward time-frame of, say, a quarter century?

I like to think of it as the Wal-Mart Supposition. To wit: if we take the world’s climate and energy experts at their word – and I do – then we have, as I said, maybe a quarter century to engineer this wholesale shift from our recklessly unsustainable, carbon-based socioeconomic order to a sustainable one. So imagine we succeed. It’s 2033. The globe’s greenhouse gas emissions are less than 20 percent of their 1990 levels, and the internal combustion engine is a museum piece. Are there supermarkets in this vision? Large consumer goods emporia? Are there, in short, still Wal-Marts in this version of 2033?

If there are not, then I’m curious – genuinely so – what miraculous mechanism managed to completely dismantle globalized, corporatized mass-market capitalism and build something wholly new in its place inside of 25 years that was capable of engineering such a radical transition so quickly (and on peaceful and prosperous terms, no less). If, however, there is still a recognizable model of mass-market consumption, then it follows that our entire approach to consumer goods, from how items are packaged, to how long we expect to own our "stuff," to where stores are located, has been re-engineered, presumably by those consumer goods behemoths, for sustainability.

Back to Stoiber. He is again working with said consumer goods behemoths (Unilever, for example), and he’s quickly learned that this whole sustainability thing is exciting but anxious terrain for these companies, and his notion is that you will only convince them to make deep, thoroughgoing changes in the way they do business if you convince them on their terms.

This is, I'd argue, a potentially very significant role in the move to sustainability. It could indeed be the most effective way to awaken the big-business mainstream to the idea that sustainability is not just a second-tier department for organizing feel-good projects or a trendy marketing pose but a fundamental shift in the way a business is organized and operated - and moreover that this shift represents not just a boost to short-term profitability but the key to long-term competitiveness in a drastically altered twenty-first century economy. Greed and fear - those two great engines of the free market - might in the end prove more persuasive than green-minded altruism.

This is why the "MapChange" study's conclusion is important. Stoiber and a growing number of the corporate clients he works for and tracks are wide awake now to the enormous business opportunity buried under sustainability's altruistic sheen. So far, though, as the study explains, it's been difficult to translate sustainable practices directly into a fattened bottom line. But once someone does, I'm betting that's when the metaphorical rubber'll hit the road. And I think the smart money's on a guy like Stoiber figuring out how to make that translation pay.

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.

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Comments

Spot on Chris. But there's a catch- absent a mechanism that lets us judge their wondrous green claims, the temptation to use these techniques for nothing more than greenwashing will prevail.

What we need is a search tool which reveals the truth. A green Google that digs up the dirt and tells you exactly what damage was done to the environment in order to bring you this lovely product. How else can we feel good about these brands we buy? We need to have our branded desires validated.

How about a mobile interface that lets you take a picture of any barcode, submit it to this green Google and instantly reveal the true sustainability factor before you decide to buy.

To back that up, how about legislation to create a database tracking energy use, carbon emissions, pollution and labor conditions around the world? Companies should be required to submit comprehensive information regarding sourcing and manufacture to this database before bringing their products to market. We should be able to search it.

If we have absolute transparency, there will be a very strong incentive for companies to market heavily on their green qualities. When we can verify the claim right away, we won't have that moment of doubt as we wonder if our virtuous impulse is a load of crap. Instead, we'll happily part with our cash knowing that our virtue is indeed strengthened.

And of course this green Google must itself be branded. You'll ask yourself: am I the kind of person who will search before I buy? The answer will be yes.

-P


Posted by: Phil on 27 Nov 08

YES! Chris and P,...kinda like a BuyBlue.org before it was dismantled. I used this website before patronizing a retailer or service in the U.S. EXACTLY in order to support 'blue' or progressive businesses.

I DON'T trust companies to police themselves...not only is legislation needed but 'cops on the beat! That would be us!

And we need to continue to plant seeds of critical thinking in everyone. I'm appalled at how absolutely GULLIBLE entire generations [in the U.S.???] have become!!! Education, education, education!!


Posted by: D on 28 Nov 08

" . . . this shift represents not just a boost to short-term profitability but the key to long-term competitiveness in a drastically altered twenty-first century economy."

Isn't this what the companies that have adopted The Natural Step, particularly in Europe have found? And one of the reasons why Nike outperforms Apple. Nike use The Natural Step principles in its product and process design. I found the book The Natural Step for Business for interesting and useful. See http://tinyurl.com/5ezybm

I've incorporated some of it into my article "Designing Organizations To Do Well By Doing Good

Sustainability and Sexy may not get linked, but folks like Yvonne Chouinard of Patagonia have certainly linked Do Well with Do Good.


Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 30 Nov 08

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