Make it Cool to Stop Global Warming

By Jacquelyn A. Ottman

InBusiness, Jul/Aug 2002

The Bush Administration quietly released a report this week to the United Nations that (finally) acknowledges human responsibility for global climate change. Astonishingly, however, the report abdicates responsibility for a strong response to slowing down what U.S. scientists say is the inevitable. The absence of real leadership from our government opens a unique window of opportunity for America’s advertisers and marketers: to use the same communications techniques that made it cool to stop smoking, buckle up, and stop littering, to make it cool for Americans to take a stand on climate change. Your incentives are many: a moral imperative, the chance to exhibit leadership and win consumer loyalty, and the profits that come from shifting consumption to technologies and behaviors that are truly “sustainable.” Fact: We have what it takes to slow the warming. Technologies abound that can reduce energy use in homes, offices and other buildings. Renewable energy technologies like wind and solar are commercially viable and are now being offered by major utilities and other energy marketers. Hybrid gas-electric cars like the Toyota Prius and new hybrid Civic represent a snappy alternative to gas guzzling SUVs. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, over the next twenty years promising fuel cell technologies may be able to reduce our every use by 25% and bring carbon emissions levels back to 1990 levels. Beyond technologies, day-to-day habits help reduce individuals’ contribution to global warming. Examples include old standbys like turning the lights off when leaving a room (or using a motion sensor to flip the switch for us) and taking the bus to work, along with innovative car sharing schemes that are beginning to take root in progressive communities like Seattle and Portland. To help make these climate-changing technologies and behaviors cool among America’s mainstream while building your own and client?s businesses, follow these four strategies: 1. Turn Up the Dial on Consumer Education. A strong base of awareness and willingness is already in place: 58% of Americans agree that global climate change is real, and 50% describe it as a serious concern. However, fewer consumers realize that they can help slow the warming by turning off the lights or driving a more fuel-efficient car. Marketing and media messages can help them make the link. Years ago, a public service ad showing a crying Indian nearly singlehandedly helped to reduce littering in America. Surely Madison Avenue can produce another memorable character to join the pantheon that includes the Crying Indian, Smokey the Bear and the Jolly Green Giant. 2. Skew the Market to Energy Efficient Goods. Over 11,000 different products made by 1600 manufacturers now bear the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR® label for energy efficiency. 40% of consumers claim to recognize the decade-old label, but only a small percentage ask for it when they shop, and a small number of retail salespeople incorporate it in sales pitches. Clearly, more can be done to turn the market toward smarter buying. EPA’s mandate limits its ability to support the ENERGY STAR® label in paid media. To create more awareness and accelerate purchasing of Energy Star-labeled products, more manufacturers and retailers need to highlight the presence of the label and its significance in their ads, promotions and other communications to consumers. Meanwhile, the media can support public service announcements and other communications that can foster the purchase and responsible consumption of more efficient products and responsible consumption by consumers, businesses, and other groups. 3. Make Green “Hot.” Green products suffer from negative perceptions left over from the days when water-saving showerheads sputtered and natural laundry detergents left clothes dingy. Today’s technologies have corrected many of the quality problems, but not their image. According to Roper, 42% of consumers still feel that “environmentally safe products don’t work as well”. Happily, this number has fallen of late, but still not far or fast enough. However, savvy marketers know that energy efficient products can be made as sexy as Coke or Pepsi. Their strategy: put the kinds of benefits consumers seek in the first place front and center: convenience, style, and great performance. For example, ads for Toyota?s Prius focus on the quiet ride of its hybrid electric technology - and discriminating drivers line up on waiting lists to get one. Philips Lighting has brilliantly positioned its compact fluorescent light bulbs as “Marathon” with the prospect of longer life and significant cost savings - and they were hard pressed to keep them in stock during the California energy crisis, despite a $15 price tag. Maytag emphasizes the fact that its energy and water-saving Neptune cleans clothes better than top-loaders, and is cleaning up in the washing machine market. Unfortunately, success stories like these are few and far between. U.S. marketers and advertisers who continue to believe that consumers are not willing to pay for greener goods risk losing out on profit, market share and image opportunities to eco-innovative European and Japanese counterparts who are spurred on by enlightened governments and populaces. 4. Empower Consumers to be Good Citizens. Consumers are more than individuals permanently pushing shopping carts. They are human beings who care about the health and welfare of their families, communities, and country. The short history of green marketing has introduced us to a role for marketing and advertising that goes beyond moving products and creating glittery images. For example, over the past decade, “Citizen Action” alerts that go out with monthly bills to Working Assets long distance telephone customers have resulted in over five million letters, calls, and emails on a range of progressive issues to politicians and corporate leaders. And the company has donated $25 million worth of customers’ payments to nonprofit groups such as Friends of the Earth, Planned Parenthood, and Children?s Defense Fund. Other empowerment-oriented marketing campaigns of note include Stonyfield Farm’s “Flip Your Lid” and Ben and Jerry’s “One Sweet Whirled” which include tips on reducing carbon emissions and sample letters to send to elected representatives. Everyone including the Bush Administration now agrees that humans contribute to global climate change. So humans - as citizens and consumers - can help slow or even reverse the trend. By extension, the same humans who created the Crying Indian and Tony the Tiger can create campaigns to make it cool to stop global warming. With our government all but abdicating responsibility, it’s time for the rest of us to act.

©Copyright 2002 by J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.


Jacquelyn Ottman  is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a New York-based marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses derive competitive advantage from eco-innovation and green marketing. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, 2nd edition.

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