Environmental Marketing Messages Often Misunderstood

May 1, 2008

This article is included in these additional categories:

CPG & FMCG | PR | Retail & E-Commerce

To lessen green-marketing confusion, most Americans (59%) support government regulation of key phrases commonly used in environmental marketing and advertising, according to the “2008 Green Gap Survey” by Cone and The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship.

The “Green Gap”

Nearly four in 10 (39%) Americans are preferentially buying products they believe to be “environmentally friendly,” and almost half (48%) believe products marketed as such have a positive (i.e., beneficial) impact on the environment, the survey found.

But “green” or “environmentally friendly” products are merely those with less negative environmental impact than previous versions or competing products. And only 22% of the population understands that.

Among Americans surveyed:

  • Some 47% trust companies to tell them the truth in environmental messaging (which suggests a “lack of control they feel around complex environmental issues,” noted Bradley Googins, executive director of The Boston College Center).
  • 45% say they believe companies are accurately communicating information about their impact on the environment.
  • 61% say they understand the environmental terms companies use in their advertising.

“The gap creates significant risk of embarrassment for companies and disillusionment for consumers,” said Mike Lawrence, Cone’s EVP of corporate responsibility. “Activists are closely monitoring green claims and can quickly share information online about the actual environmental impact of a product. The result can be accusations that a company is engaging in ‘greenwashing’ and is misleading the public.”

Government/Third-Party Oversight

Respondents cited the following as possible entities that could play an oversight role:

  • Third-party organizations (certification) – 80%
  • Watchdog groups, news media, bloggers, etc. (reviews and reporting) – 78%
  • Government (regulation) – 76%
  • Industry or business groups (self-policing) – 75%

Effective Environmental Marketing

Environmental messaging, when done correctly, has a high benefit potential:

  • Some 38% of Americans say they feel informed by environmental messaging.
  • 11% say it empowers or inspires them to act.
  • Just 14% of the population says environmental messaging makes them feel either cynical or overwhelmed.

To effectively and credibly communicate how their products or services impact the environment, Cone found the following to be important:

  • Precision – Making specific claims that provide quantitative impacts.
    • 70% of Americans say quantifying the actual environmental impact of a product or service is influential in their purchasing decisions.
    • The more precise a claim, the more convincing it is – 36% found the message “environmentally friendly” credible when used to describe a paper product, but 60% found the message “made with 80% post-consumer recycled paper” credible.
  • Relevance – Providing a clear connection between the product/service and the environmental (i.e., a hybrid car and lower emissions) will better influence their purchasing decisions – 74% of Americans say so.
  • Being a Source – Giving consumers access to additional information in a place where they want it, such as…
    • The company’s website (54% list this as an important resource)
    • A third-party website (51%)
    • A search engine (48%)
    • Product packaging (45%)
  • Consistency – Keeping marketing images in line with the words and facts used in a campaign.
  • Realism – Recognizing the “big picture” and communicating the context of each small step with a “work in progress” tone, making the message more credible and less subject to criticism.

About the survey: The 2008 Green Gap Survey was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, Feb. 21-22, 2008 among 1,080 adults (18+) comprising 520 men and 560 women.


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