Posts Tagged ‘green marketing’
Apologies to the duck, but if it looks like an oil company, drills like an oil company, and speaks like an oil company, then it’s probably an oil company. And no amount of green costuming can disguise its true brown nature, especially when the promise of its “product” is now a potential ecological and economic disaster.
In the past decade, BP has positioned itself as a progressive global corporation — beyond petroleum, it would have us believe. In reality, it’s a gigantic oil company that, despite its energy diversifications, is determined to keep feeding our insatiable carbon appetite and making billions for it and its shareholders along the way.
If only BP would be so honest. Instead it continues to lead with a brand — symbolized by a logo inspired by the Greek god of the sun and bathed in pastoral green — that implies its core value is sustaining life for the planet and all its inhabitants.
Branding consultant Lisa Merriam tells it like is:
“The much-admired green sun BP brand died this week. This is a brand that never left the marketing department. No matter what they said the company stood for, they never lived it. Despite all those smug ads about wind farms and being ‘Beyond Petroleum,’ this shows they are just like any other oil company — their green brand is as dead as all of the wildlife washing up on Louisiana shores.”
While I side with Merriam on this one, the reality is BP’s green reputation hasn’t been warranted for some time, if ever. In April 2008, Sustainable Industries magazine, citing an anonymous source, reported:
(A) top-down decision has been made to pull away from touting any “green” initiatives in the media, and in fact major “green” advertising buys have been canceled. Recent press releases focus not on alternative energy successes as they did in (former CEO Lord) Browne’s time, but on BP’s ability to keep pumping oil, maintain its oil reserves and safely conduct deep-water oil drilling.
A look at the advertising BP features on its website seems to bear this out. Beyond petroleum isn’t an environmental message; it’s an energy security message, as copy in this current BP ad illustrates:
To enhance America’s energy and economic security, we must secure more of the energy we consume. That means expanding the use of wind, solar and biofuels, as well as opening new offshore areas to oil and gas production.
BP doesn’t tout alternative energy sources to help reduce global warming — an environmental message. In fact, it clearly is trying to sway public opinion in favor of allowing more offshore drilling — a decidedly non-green initiative.
While BP isn’t hiding its desire to extract and sell lots more oil, it wants to have its cake and eat it, too: lead with energy security and have us believe it also cares about the environment. Consider this BP advertising headline, “Hydrocarbons and low carbons living in harmony.” Right. And Monsanto has some genetically modified seeds to sell you organic farmers.
BP’s website has the obligatory environmental and society sections, giving the impression of their planetary concern. But look closely at BP’s statement on sustainability:
At BP we define sustainability as the capacity to endure as a group, by:
- Renewing assets
- Creating and delivering better products and services that meet the evolving needs of society
- Attracting successive generations of employees
- Contributing to a sustainable environment
- Retaining the trust and support of our customers, shareholders and the communities in which we operate.
Hardly the rhetoric of a company committed to advancing social and environmental health through its company operations. What it tells me is BP cares most about staying in business — “to endure as a group.” The closest it comes to an environmental promise — “contributing to a sustainable environment” — is so vague as to be laughable.
BP’s two-faced approach should not be dismissed as just another instance of greenwashing. It feels more insidious, a cleverly disguised deceit on a global scale. Its incessant search for oil — even in 5,000-foot waters in the Gulf of Mexico — puts BP anywhere but “beyond petroleum.” In the name of “energy security,” BP is willing to risk the kind of ecological calamity now threatening the Gulf region. That is not a risk a sustainable company takes.
The day BP stops drilling is the day I’ll start listening. Until then, let’s make no mistake about the kind of company BP is.
With Earth Day 2009 behind us, I have a suggestion: Let’s acknowledge “green marketing” has outlived its usefulness and put our energy into redefining marketing itself.
Green marketing had a good run. It has responded to the rising green demands of customers. And it’s helped raise the environmental conscience of many others. Unfortunately, marketing as it’s most widely practiced remains the fuel for unsustainable consumption. And green marketing doesn’t go nearly far enough to change that.
The American Marketing Association (AMA) defines green marketing three ways:
- (retailing definition) The marketing of products that are presumed to be environmentally safe.
- (social marketing definition) The development and marketing of products designed to minimize negative effects on the physical environment or to improve its quality.
- (environments definition) The efforts by organizations to produce, promote, package, and reclaim products in a manner that is sensitive or responsive to ecological concerns.
I added the emphasis to products to underscore the limitation of green marketing. Absolutely, we must develop and promote products that are ecologically sensitive and safe. And green marketing has encouraged more eco-friendly product consumption. However, it utterly fails to address two unsustainable conditions:
- Too much consumption by rich people and countries: According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the ecological footprint* of the United States in 2005 was 9.4 (global hectares per person); the world average was 2.7. For high-income countries it was 6.4; for low-income countries 1.0.
- Too little consumption by poor people and countries: Although progress has been made on reducing extreme poverty in recent decades, the World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people still lived on less than US $1.25 a day in 2005.
Over consumption and inequitable consumption explain much of what troubles our world. If marketers really want to make a difference, they’ll look far beyond green products. And focus instead on how to curb the material cravings of the affluent and narrow the rich-poor gap.
We’re seeing signs of green marketing morphing into “sustainable marketing.” That’s an improvement. It situates marketing in a larger triple-bottom-line context: people, planet, profit. Sustainable marketing, however, implies there is something known as “unsustainable marketing” — which of course there is, most anywhere you look.
We need sustainability embedded in marketing. In other words, marketing — by definition — must be sustainable. There is no green marketing or sustainable marketing. There’s only marketing. And it’s sustainable. Or at least that’s the idea.
What does sustainability mean? I rely on the widely used definition from the Brundtland Commission**: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The AMA, meanwhile, defines marketing (inelegantly) as “an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating, and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.”
So marketing newly defined could appear something like this:
Delivering value to customers and managing customer relationships in ways that meet the needs of the organization and its stakeholders without compromising the ability of all humans, present and future, to meet their own needs.
Still doesn’t roll of the tongue, I know. But this alternative concept of marketing is profoundly different. No longer will it be enough to satisfy our customers for their benefit and that of our organization and stakeholders (especially shareholders). This business-as-usual approach to marketing has created too few winners and too many losers.
The world could look very different if marketers accept responsibility for ensuring their organizations (or clients) are not jeopardizing the ability of others to meet their needs. In other words, doing our jobs can’t mean satisfying customers, shareholders or bosses at a cost to the health of individuals, communities and environments now and for generations to come. How we avoid that won’t always be obvious. The point is to acknowledge there can be broad social and ecological consequences to our actions and lines we don’t knowingly cross.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the AMA and academia to get behind a new vision of marketing. They’ll follow the real practices of real marketers. Let’s show them the way.
*According to the World Wildlife Federation, “A country’s footprint is the sum of all the cropland, grazing land, forest and fishing grounds required to produce the food, fibre and timber it consumes, to absorb the wastes emitted when it uses energy, and to provide space for its infrastructure.” WWF also says, “If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.”
** Friend Brian Setzler at TriLibrium informs me two key concepts are usually excluded or overlooked when referring to the Brundtland definition: “the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
As I get ready for my summer vacation in the Northwest, my thoughts are in the South, specifically New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. That area is about to mark the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. No doubt residents fortunate enough to have homes and jobs and politicians and government officials charged with the region’s recovery will cite the many signs of progress. Others, with equal claim, will point to the vast stretches that have yet to recover, looking virtually as they did when the floodwaters receded.
My reflection is of a different sort. I only experienced the storm and its catastrophic aftermath through the media. A year after Katrina hit, I traveled along the Gulf Coast and into New Orleans. I needed to see with my own eyes what had happened. I returned to New Orleans a few months later as part of a volunteer crew that gutted and cleaned homes for a week. Needless to say, what I saw with my own eyes has left a lasting impression.
I realize now that Katrina is as responsible as anything for the shift I made in my work. I had spent 20 years in high tech marketing and was running the PR and advertising agency I co-founded in 1993 when all hell broke loose in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The storm and a tragically flawed response at all levels of government laid bare for the entire world to see the outrageous inequities and injustices that remain in our land of the free and home of the brave.
By coincidence, I departed my previous business and the high tech industry a year after Katrina hit. I had decided I needed to shift what I knew how to do — branding, marketing, communications — in support of businesses and organizations whose values and actions are making the world a better place. When I formed a new firm to work at the crossroads of sustainability and marketing, I wasn’t seeing sustainability through the single lens of saving the environment. As much as we humans have disregarded and damaged our natural world, we have caused no less harm to each other. Katrina was simply the most recent evidence.
Efforts to create a sustainable future must treat the Earth and all of its inhabitants as one. Sustainability isn’t saving the old growth in the Pacific Northwest forests and ignoring the rights of all humans to have their basic needs met and to live in peace. By this standard, green marketing falls short. Its preoccupation with promoting eco-friendly products is often little more than dressing up unsustainable consumption in a different color. Even more significantly, green marketing doesn’t go far enough to address the broader human and social dimensions of sustainability. If you’re a retailer touting your green product lines while paying employees low wages and no benefits, you fail the sustainability test.
Management guru Peter Drucker said the function of marketing is to create and keep a customer. In this post-Katrina world, maybe it’s worth remembering that customers are humans first. Forget that, and one day marketers will have no customers to keep.