Jacquelyn Ottman’s Keynote at Sustainable Brands ‘08

By Jacquelyn Ottman

Opening remarks at Sustainable Brands '08

Sustainable Branding in the 21st Century
Keynote for Sustainable Brands 08
Presented by Jacquelyn Ottman
June 3, 2008

Good morning to you all. Welcome to Monterey. It's so great to be back at Sustainable Brands. Koann and her team are not only wonderful to work with, but they have an amazing sense of what's important to everyone in this room. And they know how to run a conference in a first class way.

Those of you who were with us in New Orleans are likely back this year because of the amazing experience you had last year. For those of you who are new, be prepared for one of the most extraordinary times you will have at a conference - with the exception of course, of what we will all find when we come back next year.

Speaking of years, It's been quite a year!

  • In the blogosphere, the buzz around sustainability jumped 50 percent from last year. It was fueled by dozens of books, TV specials, Earth Day events, and stories in the press.
  • A record number of consumers is now worried about global climate change. But water is fast becoming the number two issue on everyone's mind.
  • Coke has set a goal to become "water neutral." The company came under attack when wells ran dry near one of its bottling plants in India. In the past year, its Dasani brand, among many other brands of bottled water, became a target of activists for its carbon footprint.
  • Other industries under fire are plastic supermarket trash bags, children's toys laced with lead paint, and water bottles made with BPA.
  • I predict when we reconvene next year, disposable diapers will be back in the hot seat. That's because the "G Diaper" has come to town. It's not only trendy and convenient, it's flushable. That's important because it dumps the contents not into landfills where they can pollute underground water, but right where they belong - into water treatment systems. Wait until city planners figure this out!
  • The American car market continues to shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Indeed, the number of drivers on the road has declined to lows not seen since the 1940s, when gas was rationed during World War II. That's because drivers have finally reached their breaking point-gasoline that's now well over $4 at the pump.
  • Last month, Toyota's Prius became the hottest car on the market-experiencing +54% sales over last year. Last week, Business Week announced that General Motors has finally recognized that it's time to "Live Green or Die". This coincides with a cutback of 19,000 jobs announced this past weekend. Someone wasn't managing their business so sustainably!
  • Consumers remain concerned about toxics. In response, Clorox made headlines this past year when they introduced GreenWorks. It now sits on store shelves next to Seventh Generation and Method. Representatives from all three brands are here to tell us their stories.
  • Major advertising and PR agencies are finding there's green to be had in green. They are ramping up to serve needs of clients that are pioneering such fields as clean tech, natural personal care, and green building products. Some are starting up green divisions, like Saatchi and Saatchi S; Adam Werbach of Act Now was here last year.

But not all clients seem to be so well served!

Marketing communications are laced with terms like "renewable" and "sustainable" that consumers don't understand. Almost all sport meaningless terms like "environmentally friendly" and "eco-safe". The FTC's Green Guides declared these inappropriate in 1992!

Many campaigns offer carbon offsets. Carbon offsets is now a $54 million dollar unregulated industry that's drawn fire for lack of accountability.

So it's not so surprising that polls are finding that more green marketing campaigns than not can be classified as "greenwash". Indeed, the green marketing industry is now being likened to the Wild-West. In response, the FTC has moved up its review of its Green Guides by a full year. Hearings were held in January and again in April.

Finally, a new term has slipped into the marketing press: "green fatigue." It's a syndrome supposedly being expressed by more and more consumers who are so inundated by green products-from recycled jewelry to organic mattresses-that they can't decide what represents genuine progress and what's just a green-marketing gimmick.

How many of you think that your customers suffer from green fatigue? How many of you are confused about how to market green initiatives in a legitimate way? How many of you lie awake at night worrying that your own well intended efforts might be labeled greenwash? even be subjected to law suit?

If these are some of your concerns, you're not alone. My own feedback from clients and colleagues tells me that these sentiments are rampant in our industry.

Ladies and Gentemen: If we don't fix the issues associated with "green washing" and "green fatigue". And if we don't stop the advocates from bashing ever more industries for not having done our homework, then the entire green marketing revolution that's fully underway will come to a screeching halt.

This has happened before. Back in 1992-93, I saw the brakes put on green marketing by corporate lawyers who feared the type of lawsuits that were being levied against Hefty "photodegradable" trash bags and GE "Energy Choice" light bulbs.

It can happen again. The fact that consumer concern is even more elevated now, suggests that it will take longer than 15 years to rebound - 15 years that we might not have.

So how can we keep the green marketing revolution-and our companies' reputations, our jobs, and our hopes for conducting business in a better way on track?

This conference will provide us with many of the answers. Over the next few days, you will be exposed to the best examples of sustainable branding. The latest research on the key trends. And the people who are genuine leaders in the field. And it's not just the speakers who are leaders. We are all leaders, because we are all pioneers. Each one of us has much to offer each other in this room, as well as to everyone else whom we influence in our professional and personal lives.

What I'd like to offer you are some strategies you can use to make your own green marketing campaigns credible, and effective. Some strategies relate to things that we can all do now, and others to things a little further into the century.

Strategy: Focus on Primary Benefits. Some of you have heard me say this before. But I think it's worth saying again: Skip the Babies. Kill the Daisies, and Pulverize the Planets.

One reason why I think consumers have "green fatigue" is because they're just plain tired of seeing so many green marketing pitches with the same trite images. Also, consumers know that products that are displayed with such imagery can't all be that green.

One brand that has avoided the "babies, planets and daisies" syndrome is Toyota's Prius. The car may have been inspired by green concerns, but right from the start, branding for the Prius has focused on benefits such as "quiet ride" and "fuel economy" that are much more meaningful to consumers than "saving the planet."

Gallup Poll took a poll in March. Respondents were asked what were the main "Problems facing the country that they worry about a great deal". They found that the "Environment" trails the more important issues of "Quality of economy" and "Availability and affordability of health care."

This says to me that you can make your messages much more relevant to consumers if you can link your environmental attributes to such primary benefits of your greener products such as the savings that can accrue from Energy Star qualified appliances, or the health benefits of organically grown produce. It also underscores the opportunities to link your corporate environmental initiatives to social benefits like better jobs and health care. Some of you may know that this past spring, Coke, Ford and Anheuser-Busch all launched campaigns focusing on their employees.

A second strategy that I think is Important is: Transparency. My vote in this category goes to Timberland for the label they unveiled this year that provides detailed factual information to their consumers about each pair of shoes.

Here's the label for those of you not familiar with it. You'll see it shows such information as energy use, renewable energy and material efficiency for each of pair of shoes.

It also includes information on global warming contribution. This is the first time I have seen this on a consumer product. I predict that this is a sign of something much bigger to come - and it will come soon. That is labels that link consumption to carbon footprint. We already have a taste of what educating consumers about carbon footprint of familiar products has done to the bottled water industry. There are many other product categories where carbon is a critical factor. When someone figures out a way to compare "our carbon footprint with yours", all hell will break loose!

My third strategy is "Start from the Inside Out." It relates to ensuring the credibility of corporate campaigns. Tomorrow night, the winner of the first-ever "Special Effie Awards for Environmental Achievement" will be announced at a dinner in New York. The winner will be chosen from three semi-finalists.

Presentations were made about each of these campaigns at this conference last year. Each campaign is so strong in its own way, it's hard to predict which one will win the Gold Effie. But what's important for us today, is not who will win, but what we can learn from all of them.

I had the honor of working with JWT on HSBC's campaign. It is based on a very simple idea: empowering consumers to take small steps to reduce their carbon footprint. But they don't offer consumers carbon offsets. They chose to focus on the chief strategies that HSBC Bank itself uses in its industry leading Carbon Management Program: energy efficiency and use of renewable energy.

Wal-Mart's Personal Sustainability Project leveraged the potential sustainability impact represented by over 1 million associates.

GE's Ecomagination campaign shone a spotlight on leading edge technologies, and in doing so, provided tangible evidence to customers, investors, employees and other stakeholders that the GE is making progress in a way that will help the environment and the bottom line.

My first three strategies demonstrate great examples of good green marketing. However, they represent what is working now.

I'd like to conclude my remarks with strategies that I believe will be necessary for any business looking to build a sustainable brand for the future.

Strategy: Promote responsible consumption. From now on, think like a beer marketer on New Year's Eve!

Responsible consumption has many aspects:

  • It means conserving resources associated with using products. Like encouraging consumers not just to buy CFLs, but to turn them off when they're not in use.
  • It means selling consumers front-loading washers, and encouraging them to run them only when fully loaded.

Responsible consumption can be encouraged through design, like the special feature on every Prius dashboard that helps drivers monitor their fuel economy.

Responsible consumption can occur through technology, too. How many of you have met Wattson? This little device sits on your coffee table and lets you know how much electricity your home is drawing at any moment of the day. Shut off a light and the device adjusts downward. Run the dishwasher and the device spikes upwards. If you think about it, our electrical meters were designed, not for the people who actually consume the electricity, but for someone else to read. And this has been going on for an entire century! I'm sure you'll agree that Wattson has a brighter idea for the next one.

Finally, responsible consumption ultimately must mean buying less stuff-encouraging consumers not to buy more of your products than they actually need. I can't tell you how many clients ask me for advice on how to green up their products and design green communications but draw a line on this issue.

But their shortsightedness prevents them from seeing opportunities for developing products that last longer and have higher consumer value. Their shortsightedness also prevents them from exploring new business models that can help you develop long term relationships with your customers.

A second thing we must all do is to become brand stewards. By this I mean we all need to incorporate product stewardship concerns as part of our jobs. Product stewardship means being responsible for our brands at every phase of their life cycle, from raw materials procurement and manufacturing, right straight through to disposal.

Could the bottled-water crisis be averted? How about bans on supermarket trash bags? Lead in children's toys? The answer is Yes!

Being a brand steward starts with conducting a baseline life cycle assessment- an LCA for short-to identify environmental problems and then to manage them proactively.

The people at Procter and Gamble conducted an LCA on Tide. They found the greatest lifecycle impacts occurred during the use phase when energy is used to heat the water. It became the inspiration for Tide Coldwater.

Being good brand stewards may entail working on with suppliers for competitive advantage. Or it may involve working with competitors to ensure that markets stay open for one's products. At a minimum it means working in teams, because managing life cycle impacts requires multidisciplinary skills.

My third and last strategy might put you out of business - sort of. It's called "Eco-Innovation" and it involves inventing new products, new materials and new technologies, rather than simply making incremental improvements to existing ones.

It's the Apple iPod that replaces CDs. And even the videoconferencing technology that makes carbon-producing trips to Monterey unnecessary!

And for all we know, Tide itself may one day morph into a cleaning agent that doesn't need water at all. We're starting to see signs of this with the Mr. Clean dry eraser.

To recap what I think are some of the most important points I'd like you to take away:

1) Things are changing quickly in the world of sustainable branding. The topics we talked about last year are being replaced by new topics, representing even greater challenges.

2) The same tried and true strategies that apply to marketing in general apply to green marketing in particular: Build great products, highlight underlying value-and consumers will come.

3) We pioneers have an opportunity, indeed an obligation, to incorporate product stewardship considerations into our job responsibilities. With our homework done, we will find our way to legitimate products and credible messages that we can be genuinely proud of.

4) Finally, at the end of the day the companies that have the opportunities to reap the greatest rewards will truly innovate. They will develop new products, new materials and new technologies that will tackle the challenges that await us in the years and decades ahead.

I hope these remarks gave you some new and important things to think about. I wish you a great conference!


Jacquelyn Ottman is president, J. Ottman Consulting, a green marketing consultancy that advises businesses on strategies for developing and marketing environmentally sustainable products and services. She is the author of three books on green marketing. Her latest book,The New Rules of Green Marketing, is due out in 2010.

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Copyright© 2008 by J. Ottman Consulting, Inc.