The Greening of Digital Marketing

  |  August 16, 2007   |  Comments

2007 is shaping up to be a banner year for green marketing. But as firms tethering their brands to the sustainability bandwagon are finding out, the rules are different online.

2007 is shaping up to be a banner year for green marketing. Growing public concern about the environment, combined with the rise of digital media covering it, has sparked many an eco-marketing initiative devoted to saving the planet -- or at least talking about it in ads.

There's GE's acclaimed Ecomagination effort, and a slew of new campaigns and microsites from the likes of Michelin ("A Greener World") and Philips ("A Simple Switch").

These mainstream efforts are crowding in on the green market's endemic advertisers -- companies like Seventh Generation, Organic Valley and Method. Yet many blue chips hitting the green media circuit for the first time are finding the rules are a little different online.

Waving the Green Banner (Ad)

John Rooks is president of Dwell Creative, an integrated agency that builds campaigns around social awareness and sustainability issues. He said the appeal of online media to Dwell's clients and its campaign planners is issue-based segmentation.

"The latest shift we've been tracking is the shift from demographic marketing to psychographic marketing," Rooks said. "If we have a client that's interested in land conservation, we can pinpoint the psychographic that cares about that issue."

Dwell's business mix is around 30 percent government contracts and 30 percent non-profits, Rooks said. The rest is for-profit businesses doing cause-related, grassroots-style online marketing. Interactive accounts for about 30 percent of the agency's work. He likes Web advertising for its ability to establish a dialog rather than simply broadcast a message, and he believes it's that potential for consumer engagement that's driving a wave of recent consolidation in green market media.

Online, that consolidation includes Discovery Communications' purchase of TreeHugger.com, and Gaiam.com's acquisition of eco-lifestyles media firm Lime Media and Zaadz, a "LOHAS" social net. (LOHAS, in case you were wondering, stands for Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, a newly hot acronym and consumer niche that includes everyone from the vegan freecycler to the cash-poor suburban dad eyeing the Prius at the next gas pump over.)

"The companies that are out there acquiring the TreeHuggers -- Discovery and others -- they're looking to establish dialog with the brand," said Rooks. "Online offers that to a much greater degree than [other media]."

Ken Rother, president of TreeHugger, agrees. Despite the mainstreaming of the green movement and despite the site's relatively large audience of just under 2 million unique visitors in June, a self-reported figure, he said TreeHugger is a poor vessel for mass media campaigns.

"Treehugger is a pretty well-defined, self-selecting audience," Rother said. "When a large organization has made a conscious decision to have a greener footprint or greener products, that's a good way to tell that audience, because the audience may not be available in other media."

And not only that. "There's this implicit trust between... TreeHugger and the reader. That trust takes a lot of work to build. It's our belief that the advertising should have similar conceptual values to the content."

Yahoo Bleeds Purple and Green

Large online publishers like Yahoo and Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive have lately introduced dedicated operations to serve (and serve ads to) such passionate consumers. Yahoo Green, for instance, first appeared several months ago as 18seconds.org, an initiative urging consumers to switch to Energy Star CFL Bulbs. (The CFL pledge meme is widespread. Philips's "A Simple Switch" microsite, for instance, invites people to commit to trading up their fluorescent bulbs.)

Ads on the site include environmental-themed placements from the likes of toothpaste maker Tom's and Hewlett-Packard. Yet it's not a large enough category for Yahoo to justify a dedicated salesperson. "There isn't one person who is responsible for selling green on the sales team," said Dina Freeman, a Yahoo spokesperson. "The entire sales team is tasked with bringing it to their clients based on whether or not it makes sense for the client's objectives."

Yahoo approached HP shortly before the launch of the section. The high tech firm jumped, said HP Manager of Emerging Technologies Patty White, because "we feel HP is a leader in environmental responsibility. We want to be where our audience is in learning about and discussing these important issues."

One rich media ad for HP that's now running on Yahoo Green contains the copy, "HP Recycles the equivalent of 600 Jumbo Jets Per year. Go Green with HP." Clicking through brings the user to a page on equipment exchange, recycling and other environmentally sound means of unloading hardware.

With its pro-recycling message on Yahoo Green and elsewhere online, HP's White said the company wants to start a conversation with consumers and provoke their involvement.

"HP's Green initiatives provide not only videos and podcasts, but we also welcome users to join the green computing movement," she said.

Among other gestures, the hardware manufacturer uses its Web site to aid those wishing to recycle equipment and printing supplies; to offer online tips on reducing energy bills and greening a business; and to help businesses "manage older assets by turning used equipment into cash."

Hey, wait a minute. In the handbook of eco-catchphrases, aren't "turn used equipment into cash" and "five quick steps" a tad too facile, too late-night-infomercial, to bolster HP's eco-credentials? Shouldn't HP's messaging be a little more, uh, radical or something?

Well, yes and no.

Green Authenticity

For any firm tethering its advertising to the LOHAS bandwagon, there's certainly a risk of being perceived as inauthentic or faking the sustainability vibe -- a sin often called "greenwashing." Or so the accepted wisdom goes.

"What people are learning in the Web 2.0 world is that anybody can say anything about any company," said TreeHugger's Rother. "Organizations are going to be called to the carpet. There's a platform for people to say things and be heard. Whether it's green washing or some other lack of authenticity, it's going to hurt corporations if they're not careful."

Yet as the U.S. market for green products and brands balloons to include not only dedicated cyclers and recyclers, but also Escalade-driving Whole Foods habitués vaguely drawn to the aura of organic, it gets easier to feed the public a line about environmental awareness.

Problem is, despite America's burgeoning interest in sustainability, "the mainstream doesn't care about authenticity very much, which I think is dangerous for the green movement," said Dwell's Rooks. "It jumped the shark as soon as Shrek was marketed with the phrase 'Go Green.'" (Shrek the Third was marketed in several nations in conjunction with eco-causes, including Los Angeles's Million Trees campaign.)

Certainly many Fortune 100 companies that have launched digital ad campaigns around LOHOAS themes are authentic, HP's recycling campaign not excluded. GE for instance has invested heavily in wind farms, desalination facilitates and clean diesel train engines -- all highlighted in its global Ecomagination videos and digital campaign. From the beginning, Ecomagination was crafted a product as well as a branding initiative. The initial iteration of the Web site, launched in 2005, sought to educate consumers about environmental issues.

Jakob Daschek is a founder and creative director of Syrup, the creative and production agency that worked with GE agency-of-record BBDO on the effort. He believes the U.S. market has become considerably more sophisticated about environmental issues since the campaign began 18 months ago.

"With the first launch of Ecomagination, we had this whole thing educating people about what the issues are," he said. "Now we're migrating it out into specifically what GE is doing, because people know at this point [about the issues], and they can benefit from knowing exactly what GE is doing."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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