Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

Playing with green Air Jordans in a dead-end game

Say what you will about Nike, they know how to market and sell products. And they seem to take seriously the challenge of becoming a more sustainable manufacturer. Witness the 23rd version of its most high-profile product, the Air Jordan basketball shoe. It’s said to be Nike’s “first premium product designed according to the company’s sustainable standards.”

My question for Nike, and virtually any other manufacturer, is how do you square your boundless desire for growth and its associated requirement to make and sell more products with your stated objective of reducing your environmental impact.

Isn’t it a bit like exercising madly while eating ever-increasing amounts of low-calorie foods, and still expecting to lose weight? You can only exercise so much. Meanwhile, your caloric consumption steadily increases and eventually so does your weight. At some point, you have to start eating fewer calories.

Nike, and consumer products companies like them the world over, must at some point realize that selling ever-increasing amounts of products, no matter how low-cal (green), is an environmentally dead-end game. The earth’s natural resources are finite. Using them in smaller quantities per unit ultimately changes nothing when unit volume is always increasing. And that’s to say nothing about the carbon footprint of companies like Nike that continue to expand office space, send growing numbers of employees on countless airline trips around the globe and ship their products thousands of miles from where they are manufactured to where they are consumed.

Whether Nike or anyone else wants to admit it or not, there’s nothing sustainable about an economy dependent upon growing material consumption. Something has to give. And right now, Earth is doing all the giving. You won’t hear that in the new Air Jordan commercials.


Trusting word of mouth, but for how long?

In advertising circles these days, “word of mouth” has its own acronym (WOM) and trade association (WOMMA), signaling its arrival as a marketing discipline. Companies love good WOM because they believe their customers are likely to believe friends and peers who recommend their products more than any commercial source. While that marketing axiom has been around for decades, what’s changed is the dedication and technology marketers are applying to monitor and generate WOM — or buzz.

So with a raised eyebrow I read an op-ed piece in the Sunday New York Times, “Loose Lips Win Elections.” The authors, executives at a research firm, claim that John Edwards and Mike Huckabee performed better than expected in the Iowa caucuses because they benefited from what they called “word of mouth advocates” — evangelistic supporters who spoke to friends and colleagues before and during the caucuses.

Whether by chance or design, such citizen advocates created the explosive growth in support for Mike Huckabee and sustained John Edwards, even as both were vastly outspent by their opponents.

I don’t believe sophisticated presidential campaigns leave anything like this to chance. It was by design that Edwards and Huckabee got their citizen advocates out in large numbers. Good for them. As the op-ed writers noted, both candidates had to do something to counteract the much larger TV advertising campaigns mounted by their chief rivals. And they understandably chose a WOM strategy. According to the authors:

Public trust in all kinds of communication is eroding, with a notable exception: word of mouth…Our mid-December survey of Iowa voters found 38 percent saying they trusted information provided by TV ads, while 69 percent trusted “comments from friends, relatives and colleagues.”

There’s reason to believe even word of mouth will soon suffer the same credibility loss as other forms of communications. Why? Because marketers are increasingly manipulating and instigating word of mouth, as Adweek magazine explained in last week’s issue:

People, of course, have always acted as brand ambassadors by sharing recommendations with friends and associates…Now, however, these interactions have become supercharged thanks to a new breed of brand ambassadorship programs that formalize the relationship between marketers and average consumers passionate about their products. These programs “hire” consumers, via incentives and rewards, to act as part PR agents, part sales reps and part evangelists. They mix the spontaneity of buzz building with technology to instigate, guide and measure what repeat customers are saying to each other about their brands.

As citizens begin to understand how these so-called ambassador programs work, it won’t be long before many of us start doubting the credibility of certain acquaintances or colleagues who speak with unbridled fervor for a brand — whether a product or a candidate. After all, they may be receiving compensation of some sort for speaking out. I say “may” because right now there’s no guarantee these enthusiastic consumers or voters will divulge their relationship to a commercial or political entity. As Adweek explains:

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a trade group of agencies and marketers who use word-of-mouth marketing, has instituted an informal, but largely unenforced, industry policy that brand reps must always disclose their relationship to the product or service when promoting it.

So whether on behalf of products or candidates, word of mouth appears destined to become yet another suspect source of communication. That means the Huckabees and Edwards of the next Iowa campaign won’t be able to count on vocal supporters to sway opinion like they did this time around. And worse yet, the rest of us are left to wonder whose words we can still trust and whose opinions have been put up for sale.


And you call yourself an environmentalist

I am a meat-eating environmentalist. And that would make me a hypocrite.

It says so right here in the NY Times: “You just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist,” says a PETA spokesman.

Through stepped-up advertising campaigns, PETA and other animal rights groups are trying to educate us that eating meat does more to cause global warming than driving. And those they are going after most aggressively are environmentalists, reserving special wrath for Al Gore. The animal rights activists don’t believe the earth activists are doing enough to promote a non-meat diet. Especially after a UN report issued late last year concluded “that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.”

I’m sympathetic to the causes of animal rights groups. But why hammer environmental types for eating meat or not promoting vegetarian or vegan diets? After all, it ain’t exactly easy getting yourself, much less others, to get rid of SUVs, drive less, walk or bicycle more, move into or build smaller homes, switch to CFLs and turn off the lights, stop flying, buy local, unplug appliances, reduce, recycle, reuse, buy carbon offsets, and on and on.

“So what,” seems to be the rabid herbivores’ response. As one vegan tells the Times:

“I guess the environmentalists recognize that it’s a lot easier to ask people to put in a fluorescent light bulb than to learn to cook with tofu.”

Environmentalists, and I’m sure many are also vegetarians, have all they can do to get people to change transportation and household behaviors that contribute to global warming. Let the animal rights activists carry the flag for vegetarianism. The only way we can expect to re-wire every citizen in this country so they contribute the least possible amount of carbon emissions is by sharing the duties.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think a strategy of telling those already doing more than most others to stop global warming, “You’re not doing enough,” will swell the vegan ranks anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Food and Drink, Marketing | No Comments »

What would you do if Wal-Mart called?

“He Sold His Soul to Wal-Mart,” the cover of September’s Fast Company magazine shouts.

The story inside doesn’t quite pay off the cover tease, but it offers a fascinating look at the life of Adam Werbach. Or at least what it’s been like since he decided to take on Wal-Mart as a client. That alone isn’t newsworthy. But the plot thickens when you recall or learn that Werbach is the former wunderkind president of Sierra Club and once called Wal-Mart “a new breed of toxin.” After a very public falling out with the environmental movement, Werbach was approached by Wal-Mart to help them with their now much-publicized sustainability initiatives. He eventually agreed. And in the past year his consulting firm has grown from eight to 45 employees, mainly to handle the Wal-Mart work.

The article gets to the heart — and soul — of one of the many contentious debates within the environmental movement. Are environmentalists better advised to become corporate insiders to move business toward greater sustainability? Or do they need to remain outsiders to a consumption-based economy that by definition is unsustainable and needs radical overhauling? Perhaps that choice isn’t as stark for the environmentalist who weighs whether to go to work for a progressive company such as Clif Bar. But when it’s the hated Wal-Mart, well, that’s a line most won’t cross. Had Werbach taken on just about any other corporation in America as a client, he wouldn’t be nearly as reviled by his former environmentalist kin.

While I haven’t walked in Werbach’s shoes, I can tell you this: If I had been approached with the same offer from Wal-Mart, I sure as hell hope I would have run away faster than it takes Wal-Mart to earn its first million dollars each morning.

How about you? Is Wal-Mart “beyond redemption”? Would you have stayed in the environmental movement and tried to make it more effective, rather than walk away like Werbach? Or would you have taken the Wal-Mart gig and figure on making a bigger difference there?

These are my questions.

P.S. Thanks to The Triple Bottom Line Blog for the tip-off on this article.


The ‘ism’ that rules America

Got a book you must read if, like me, you’re wondering how it is consumption came to rule our lives. Check out “An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialism Won in Modern America,” by Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State. It isn’t exactly hot off the presses, having been published in 2000. But it’s no less relevant now, as the urgency to build a more sustainable economy grows each day.

As a long-time marketer (previously in high tech), I’m well aware that marketing, advertising, public relations and the like are big reasons why, in Cross’ words, “Consumerism was the ‘ism’ that won” in the 20th Century. But, as Cross shows, it was hardly just the power of advertising that explains why this ism prevailed.

“Consumerism,” he writes, “succeeded where other ideologies failed because it concretely expressed the cardinal political ideals of the century — liberty and democracy — and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation.”

Cross considers consumerism one of the “meaning systems for human life.” Among his keen observations is that 20th Century critics of mass consumption on the Left and the Right failed equally to create credible alternatives. Those on the Left who advocated simple living and downscaling “all too readily ignored the deep psychological and cultural meanings of goods.” Their counterparts on the Right, meanwhile, decried the threat to “family values” by an overly permissive consumer culture. And yet they also stood with conservative politicians (most importantly Reagan) who worshipped the free market and tore down “the walls that held back the market from seeping into every corner of the American psyche and society.”

Unlike many writers of history who would let the facts speak for themselves, Cross couldn’t resist closing with a chapter on the need to confront the social costs of unleashed consumption. He calls on the Left and Right to find common ground. “A society that reduces everything to a market inevitably divides those who can buy from those who cannot, undermining any sense of collective responsibility and with it, democracy.”

Consumerism has provided meaning for Americans unlike any other alternative system. Cross isn’t optimistic we can replace it anytime soon. Americans, he said, perfected 20th Century consumerism. Now we have to figure out ways to control it.


Buy green? How about buy nothing

I have been a marketer for more than 20 years, and appreciate the importance of marketing for any organization. I also count myself among those aspiring to a truly sustainable lifestyle. So why would I have any bone to pick with marketers of green goods and services? Because too many of them want us to think green consumption is harmless, maybe even good for our planet.

I like what Alex Steffen, the executive editor of, told the New York Times on Sunday: “There is a very common mind-set right now which holds that all that we’re going to need to do to avert the large-scale planetary catastrophes upon us is make slightly different shopping decisions.”

In other words, we’re being urged by many green marketers to buy a hybrid, vacation in an eco-friendly overseas resort, purchase organic cotton clothing, install a solar panel on our second home, when in fact we should be selling our cars, limiting our air travel, buying less clothing (and other stuff) and owning only one home (and a small one at that).

As New York Times reporter Alex Williams writes in the same piece, “It’s as though the millions of people whom environmentalists have successfully prodded to be concerned about climate change are experiencing a SnackWell’s moment: confronted with a box of fat-free devil’s food chocolate cookies, which seem deliciously guilt-free, they consume the entire box, avoiding any fats but loading up on calories.”

The tough thing isn’t switching to a fat-free snack, it’s doing without the snack altogether. We don’t just need to consume more green stuff and less bad stuff. We need to consume less. Period. Bring on the companies that see a way to make their mark and their income from “non-consumption.” If I had my way, that’s what green marketing would be all about.