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The writing on the wall is green: advocating for the 88 percent

When iconic ad man Martin Lindstrom starts preaching ethics and green sensibility, you know the writing is on the wall for business as usual in the marketing world.  But it’s not really Lindstrom calling the tune here. He’s just the weatherman pointing out the massively changed consumer climate. In New Zealand, 88 percent of us want to buy more sustainable products and services according to Colmar Brunton's B3W research 2010 & 2011, with spends increasing even in tough times.

Around the world, the smart money is moving green-wards, both the smart ‘new money’ (FacebookRed BullGoogle) and the smart old money (PumaM&S, Unilever). And the marketing budgets are already following.  June’s sixth annual Sustainable Brands Conference, held over four days in California, attracted 1,300 attendees and the event is expanding to London.

In New Zealand we risk being caught in our own 100% pure aspirational paradox: complacent that our thousands of hectares of DOC land somehow offset our smoggy-on-still-days cities. But already New Zealand business is feeling the trends. ‘Green brands’ ComvitaPitango and EcoStore flourish on exports while New Zealand-caught hoki has been delisted by ethical fish retailer Waitrose in the UK because of poor fishing practices. As New Zealand consumers, we’re largely insulated by the Progressive-Foodstuffs duopoly from the plethora of fair-trade, organic choices our peers overseas experience in the supermarket aisles. 

By comparison, in the UK, choice-editing, in which retailers exclude entire ranges or brands on ethical grounds to provide consumers a values-based experience, has become a major competitive arena.

But here and overseas, the emerging green-growth opportunities demand marketers get familiar with the concepts of marketing in an ethical and sustainable context. The context changes the game we play every day. Instead of blindly obsessing over benefits, as marketers we need to grapple with the true range of social and environmental impacts our products and services have. If we’re going to talk-up green benefits or sustainability progress, we need to do it with an authenticity that can survive the radical scrutiny of social-media powered consumers.   Greenwash is toxic. 

There’s lots at risk but also much to be won. The brands, homegrown or international, that can embrace the new, ethical reality, will be the ones that win customers’ hearts. They’ll also be the ones radically reducing their exposure to future oil price shocks or water shortages.  It’s great that Air New Zealand has been getting positive PR for its energy efficiency initiatives, but there is a shrewd business cost-management rationale for investing now in cutting fuel use. 

The Colmar Brunton B3W study shows the main barrier to local consumer take-up of more socially and environmentally responsible brands is lack of knowledge. Despite the 88 percent level of demand, 72 percent of New Zealanders can't name any green brand leaders. Building awareness is a communications job. But successful green marketing depends on robust product, distribution and pricing innovation underpinning the promotional work.  The demand is there but in too many companies and too many sectors the innovation is missing.

As marketers, we’re supposed to be the consumer advocates in our organisations. It’s time we advocated for the 88 percent.

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