What can Toyota teach us about marketing green homes?

Here are a few suggestions for how marketers in the green home industry (and other industries as well) could benefit from emulating certain aspects of the marketing of hybrid cars:

2014 Toyota Prius hybrid“What can we learn from the marketing of hybrid cars that can help us market green homes?”

A LEED AP contractor posted this question as a discussion last month on the LinkedIn group Building Green.  “The cost premium for a high performance house is 5-10% for 90% better efficiency,” he added, “while the cost premium for hybrid cars is (only) 15-25% for 10-15% better efficiency.”

He didn’t elaborate, but I’m pretty sure he meant to imply that more consumers are springing for hybrids than are purchasing energy efficient homes, despite the better energy performance of the homes. In a quick search, I was unable to find hard numbers to back up this assertion. However, I do think he may have a point.

Here are my thoughts (in no particular order) on the topic:

  •  Marketing is (in general) less about logic than it is about appealing to the emotions. I hate to say it, but cars have the advantage here. They just have more sex appeal than houses for the average consumer. (Try creating a home ad that can even come close to this Porsche hybrid concept car ad in the sex appeal department!)

It’s great when your product has native sex appeal. However, there are plenty of other deep emotions that can be just as powerful. Look how Toyota openly uses the concept of non-romantic love to speak to their target audience’s desire for purposeful living in this hybrid ad:

(A nice additional touch: the YouTube post includes an invitation to join the conversation on other social media via the #LoveHybrid hashtag.)

  • Branding has merit. Toyota gets about 60% of the hybrid market. They have done an excellent job of elevating the Prius in particular to virtual cult status.
  • Related to branding, consider the mass media exposure that hybrid cars as a category enjoy. When was the last time you saw a TV ad for Passivhaus?
  • Despite the fact that people spend way more time in their homes, the energy efficiency of their cars is more top of mind. Think how many times per month people come face to face with their home energy bills. Compare that to the number of times they look at their gas gauge.  The act of driving (and fueling up) could also be functioning as a type of physical involvement device – a proven response-boosting marketing tactic.
  • Speaking of face-to-face, there are enough hybrids on the road now that their popularity is becoming obvious. (They are no longer just for tree huggers, either. My former neighbor, a deer-hunting, die-hard Green Bay Packers fan who throws all his recycling in the trash despite having access to curbside pickup, now drives a bright red Prius.) Thus, the all-important (in marketing) social proof is being offered. In contrast, it’s often difficult to tell from the outside whether a building has any progressive features.
  • Interest and accessibility. Start talking about R value and watch people’s eyes glaze over. Yet many in the green home industry continue to try to hook buyers with loads of energy efficiency data rather than presenting them with emotional benefits. On the other hand, watch a few car ads and see how technical they get. (I’ll save you some time: they’re typically 95% emotion, with a few MPG statistics thrown in.)

green roof buildingHere are a few suggestions for how marketers in the green home industry (and other industries as well) could benefit from emulating certain aspects of the marketing of hybrid cars:

1. Appeal to people’s emotions in your marketing.

2. Use language they can relate to. If you’re speaking to engineers, get as technical as you want. They love it. (Just make sure you’re accurate.) Otherwise,  translate your benefits into plain English.  Shoot for a middle school reading level. Your audience may be educated, but they’re also busy and distracted.

3. Get physical. Don’t just talk about R value and HVAC. Demonstrate energy efficiency in ways people can see and feel. Involve them. Have them handle samples of building materials. Hold an open house or expo. Sponsor a contest. Shoot a video that illustrates how your green technology works.

4. Address as many benefits as you can, including deep benefits. A lot of people don’t understand all the benefits of an efficient home. For example, a well-insulated room will feel warmer (in cold weather) than one kept at the same temperature that is not adequately insulated and air sealed. The benefit? They’ll feel much more comfortable in the insulated room. A deeper benefit is that feeling warmer reduces stress on the body (especially for older people and small children.) This means a healthier, happier family, fewer trips to the doctor, and lower medical bills.

5. Show social proof. Share testimonials and case studies of successful green buildings. Don’t just talk about meeting LEED standards. Show and tell how your type of building is meeting real people’s needs, saving them money, allowing them to enjoy a more comfortable experience, etc.

6. Try cooperative marketing. You may not have the ad budget of Toyota or Honda, but if you team up with other companies with similar target markets, you can certainly do a media blitz in your local community. Co-sponsor an event, form a local green building association, pool funds to purchase billboard space and other co-op advertising – the possibilities abound.

7. Don’t forget PR. Local press, especially, is always looking for interesting stories. Green building success stories certainly qualify – especially if you can tie in a human interest story or make a connection to a trend.

(One last thought: are green building sales really that far behind those of hybrid vehicles? Some recent research indicates that homes with green features are in high demand, and are commanding higher prices. Social proof, in and of itself!)

Lots to learn from Toyota – but should you emulate their marketing strategy to promote your construction business, architectural firm, manufacturing company, or other small to medium sized enterprise?

No way.

The image-building marketing strategy Toyota and the other major car manufacturers follow requires a huge budget and would bankrupt most smaller companies.

A much smarter and more profitable approach for most companies is to design and implement a multi-media inbound marketing funnel  – including lead-magnet pieces such as white papers and books, compelling sales letters and landing pages, events, and drip marketing campaigns such as print and email newsletters. One study found that on average, inbound delivers 54% more leads at an average of 13% less cost per lead than is typical for traditional outbound marketing strategies.

What successful marketing strategies have you used that could help market green homes?

7 Ways to Capture More of Those Trade Show Leads

Next time you exhibit, don’t make the mistake of letting the bulk of your leads sink into the cold depths of anonymity. Hook ’em instead with one of the trade show lead capture methods listed here.

photo credit: mariusz kluzniak via photopin cc

A group of trade show prospects is like an iceberg. The number of attendees at any given trade show who are actively looking for what you offer is (like the tip of the iceberg) dwarfed by the number of attendees who may not be in the market for your goods and services NOW, but have a reasonable chance of needing them in the future.

I’m always amazed at how many companies invest countless hours and thousands of dollars into appearing at trade shows, yet routinely let these potentially lucrative future sales sink into the abyss.

Not collecting contact information from those “bottom of the iceberg” prospects and getting their permission to stay in touch with them is just as wasteful to your company’s long-term sustainability as leaving your windows open to the winter winds.

Well, ok, maybe it won’t change your carbon footprint. But it will hurt your ability to stay in business. And if your company goes belly up, why then all your corporate championing of the environment goes with it. And you’ll be working for the competition.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about how to get those potential future prospects interested enough in your company to give you (at least) their names and email addresses, so you can continue to market to them.

Trade Show Lead Magnets

Here are some proven methods for trade show lead generation:

  • Your newsletter – If you are demonstrating the value of what you offer, which you should absolutely be doing at a trade show, many people will happily sign up to your newsletter list IF you have a sign-up form readily available. (You DO have a company newsletter, don’t you?)  You can sweeten the deal by offering a coupon or useful information as a reward.
  • Drawings for prizes – you’ll likely get a lot of leads for a prize drawing, but they may be lower quality leads (i.e., a lot of people who are really not interested in your product, but who would like to win the prize.) Choose your prize carefully to appeal primarily to your best prospects.
  • Offer of useful information in return for their contact information – white paper, book, video, etc. You’ll probably get fewer leads this way than with a prize drawing, but because the information you’re offering is (hopefully) highly targeted, they’ll be of higher quality; i.e. more likely to be real prospects. By the way, nothing wrong with offering multiple info pieces, each targeted towards a different industry problem and/or subset of your customer base.
  • Item giveaways – A lot of companies give out promotional items, but most of these are a waste. Try to figure out a promotional item that will actually get used (so your brand gets a bit of exposure) and can result in lead capture. Example: a Frisbee (pen, tote bag, whatever)printed with an invitation to sign up for a monthly prize drawing on your website. (For ideas on finding eco-friendlier promotional items, see my article on the topic here.)
  • Surveys – A carefully constructed survey can reveal a lot about your prospects and how to market to them. Many people are curious about the results of the survey they take; ask for their contact information and promise to send them this information once it’s compiled. (Of course you will use this as another opportunity to present the benefts of what you offer. Right?)
  • Samples – have people sign up to receive a free or discounted product sample sent to them. This can work especially well when you will be launching a new product soon, as it creates buzz around the product.
  • Contests – Run a contest and allow people to enter it right at your trade booth. This has the added advantage of keeping them engaged after the event.

How much contact information is too much to ask for?

The more expensive your product and the longer the sales cycle, the more information you should ask for. Also, the better the “goodies” you’re offering, the more information you should ask for.

If your product is of mass appeal and relatively inexpensive, your best bet is to go for sheer number of contacts. This is especially true if your product is likely to be an impulse buy. In that case, ask for just the name and email (or the minimum amount of information you’ll need to contact them).

If it will cost you a fair amount to contact them (i.e. if you’re offering to mail them a book or free product samples), always ask for their full information, including mailing address, email, phone and fax (if applicable.)

It is a good idea to disclose that you’ll be sending them periodic information. This need not be a turn-off, and you can even position it as a bonus. Just treat them with respect, and make sure they can opt out of any email correspondence, and you’re good to go.

Next time you exhibit, don’t make the mistake of letting the bulk of your leads sink into the cold depths of anonymity. Hook ’em with one of the methods above. (Or one of your own. Got any suggestions? Post ’em below!)

And then – don’t forget to follow up, respectfully but assertively. More on that in a future post!


The Silent Crowd of Customers Many Green Companies Ignore

Many eco-responsible businesspeople only market online because they think it’s more sustainable. But they’re out there – a silent crowd of customers who prefer to do business offline.

I was in the post office just before Christmas and couldn’t help but overhear the conversation taking place in line ahead of me:

“I just ordered a book from Amazon. It’s the first time I’ve ever ordered something online.”

“Oh really? Pretty convenient, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but I don’t know, it makes me nervous.”

“Oh, well, with Amazon I think you’re OK.”

“That’s right – they’re so big I’m sure they keep up with security. But I don’t think I’d trust most sites.”

If you’re like me and spend a lot of time online, it may be hard to believe. But they’re out there – a silent crowd of customers who prefer to do business offline.

Many of them may be your ideal prospects, especially if your products appeal to the older generations and/or a rural audience. Ignore them and their needs, and you may be shortchanging yourself badly. (As well as refusing them the pleasure and benefits of doing business with you, and potentially forcing them towards options that are less environmentally responsible.)

Many eco-responsible businesspeople avoid offline marketing because they believe digital media are more sustainable than traditional media – particularly because of the consumption of paper.

However, I believe that when done responsibly, print need not be any less sustainable than paper, and integrating print media into your marketing mix can really benefit your environmentally responsible business.

What’s your opinion? Do you avoid marketing your business offline? Why or why not?

Paper and Sustainability: Interview with John Fields of J&A Printing

John FieldsAre digital media really more sustainable than paper?

That’s the common conception – that posting something online has little to no environmental impact, while paper represents waste.

But have you ever stopped to analyze this assumption?

John Fields has.

John Fields is a sales rep for J & A printing in Hiawatha, IA, He is also a regular attendee at LOHAS and other sustainability conferences, is a member of the Regional Sustainable Business Alliance in Cedar Rapids, IA, and continues to educate himself about what sustainability is.

Last month, John was kind enough to agree to speak to me about paper and business sustainability.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

John had a lot of fascinating things to say about the topic, but I especially wanted to share his thoughts on the digital vs. paper conundrum. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:


Anne Michelsen:

So, a lot of people look at the use of print, they look at the papers, the inks, everything that’s used, and they think, “Oh, I won’t go there. Let’s just stick with digital because it’s a lot more sustainable.” How can a sustainably-minded company justify the use of print? And is it really any more difficult on the environment than digital? Because I know there’s a lot of issues with digital, as well.

 John Fields:

Well, when I first agreed to this interview, I did some looking online for facts and figures on sustainability and printing, and I came away way more confused than I was before.  I found that there’s so many statistics online to support whatever view you want them to have. Some of them go back to the 90s and were referring to studies back in the 90s, which are really no longer relevant. But if you look at the sustainability of print versus digital, I think that there’s room for both. Of course, I embrace the digital, I have all the gadgets, and the computers. And I like to file my things electronically so I don’t have a messy desk.

But if you look at sustainability with the advent of FSC-certified papers – Forest Stewardship Council certified – the sustainability of paper has come a long way. Just last week I saw an article, I believe online, that said that carbon emissions in the United States are going down while carbon emissions in China are going up.

Anne Michelsen:


John Fields:

And most of your digital products are, where are they produced? China.

Anne Michelsen:

This is true.

John Fields:

Several years ago I went to a conference where they went paperless. By the way, I have a blog with a terrarium in it that has a biodegradable cup that you can watch online biodegrading. So, when I went to this specific conference, I put an old Blackberry in there and a piece of paper with a note and the date on it and it said, “Tell me which one of these will biodegrade first.” So, I now look at paper as sustainable. It’s biodegradable, it’s renewable. It is compostable and it’s recyclable. All of the above. You look at the electronic device you use for your phone, it comes from nothing that’s renewable. They’re starting to do better on some recycling now, but it’s not biodegradable. And it becomes outdated so fast that you’re literally changing them year to year.

I’d like to say, too, if you take a book and a DVD, put them in a time capsule, and in a hundred years, open that time capsule. And just try and find a DVD player (to play that DVD)…

The first LOHAS Forum I went to, I was challenged. I made the statement, “We use vegetable oil.” And I remember the one person that I said that to said, “Well, what’s the mean?” And at that point, I realized I have to be able to back up what I’m saying. I have to know what I’m talking about for people to understand what I’m saying. So, I created the blog to kind of chronicle what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been learning on it.

Anne Michelsen:

And that’s an excellent take away point for anybody that’s marketing green products is that it’s so important to document anything, any statement that you make. The FTC has regulations that, you know, if you make a green claim about a product, you have to have scientific documentation. People who are interested in green products are very, very up on it and they will catch you if, like you experienced, if you don’t have that. So, excellent idea to post that on a blog.

John Fields:

That’s very interesting because just yesterday I was contacted by the QA auditor for for Frontier Natural Products here at their location in Iowa. For most of their products, we use New Leaf papers. And New Leaf has an eco audit that they use that tells us how many resources were saved by using that paper, their QA person wanted us to verify that the eco audit statement was accurate, and she wanted to see documentation on how we came up with that. That we used the paper we said we were going to use and the number of sheets. We’ve got a complete procedure in place for that.

We also are FSC certified. I push FSC paper wherever I can.

Anne Michelsen:


John Fields:

I feel FSC is probably more important than recycled paper, in fact.

Anne Michelsen:

I was going to ask you about that. The difference between using recycled paper and FSC paper. And why would you go with the virgin FSC paper rather than recycled?

John Fields:

FSC just means that the paper that you’re buying comes from pulp that comes from a forest that was properly managed. And there’s quite a bit that goes into what that properly managed forest is. They’re not doing any clear cutting and things like that. So, I can say if I sell you a postcard and say, “This is on FSC paper,” I could show you the chain of custody all the way back to the forest it came from. Where that paper came from. Everybody has to sign off on it and document that they handled this paper. We have a whole set of procedures we have to follow. FSC auditors come in once a year and they audit us. And it’s a real audit, we have to verify everything we do for them. We do sell paper that’s not FSC certified, I’m not saying that it doesn’t come from a properly managed forest, but it’s just that it doesn’t have the chain of custody on it. But everybody I talk to, new customers, old customers, if I can switch them over to FSC certified paper, I do.

End of excerpt. Listen to my interview with John Fields in its entirety here.

(You can see the terrarium mentioned in the interview for yourself on John’s blog, along with the adventures of its resident, Bart the Biodegrader. – A.M. 🙂 )

The takeaway points:

Every marketing message carries an environmental impact. The important thing is to be as responsible as possible with the media you choose to use.

Consider John’s observations:

    • Most electronic products are made overseas and have to be shipped long distances to reach US consumers, consuming large amounts of fossil fuel.
    • Electronics have a short life span and need to be replaced frequently, resulting in resource consumption and landfill waste.
    • Electronics often contain environmentally toxic components. Yes, so does ink. But a large percentage of electronics are “recycled” overseas with little to no concern for the environment, under conditions which expose workers – often children – to notoriously hazardous conditions.
    • I might add that storage of digital information consumes huge amounts of energy. (See graph, courtesy of Alliance Trust Investments.)

data center electricity use graph

While using even FSC certified paper is not without its environmental implications,  domestically produced paper made with eco-certified wood is renewable, biodegradable, and relatively local.

Rather than vilifying one or the other, as marketers it makes sense to do as John suggests and use both digital and print media as responsibly as possible. (Especially in light of his observation later in the interview that he’s seeing a lot of customers come back to print after trying to go paperless because they find integrating print into their promotions to be more effective.)

What is your experience? Do you use print media to promote your environmentally responsible business? Why or why not?

If you would like a full, annotated transcript, sign up for my newsletter – I include a link to the transcripts for this and other interviews in each issue.


Want to avoid FTC Green Guide action? Watch your supply chain!

Bottles of chemicalsThe FTC’s latest industry crackdown presents an interesting twist on the green marketing best practice of substantiating one’s claims.

As I’ve noted in the past, the agency seems to be conducting industry-wide audits based on  specific green claims. Several of the FTC’s recent Green Guide actions (including those against three mattress manufacturers last July) have revolved around failure to provide solid scientific evidence to prove environmental claims.

Last October 29, the agency announced six enforcement actions against five plastics companies for inadequate biodegradability claims. Four of these actions were levied against companies that had based their own biodegradability claims on claims made by other companies. Specifically, their claims were dependent on additives (manufactured by third party companies) used in their products. Apparently they never tested to be sure the additives worked as claimed.

It’s a really good practice to maintain a substantiation file for every product for which environmental marketing claims are made; however in light of the plastics claims I believe it’s also very important to take it a step further and be vigilant about claims made down the supply chain as well.

Keep in mind the following statement from the FTC in regards to the recent actions:

The proposed consent orders…make it clear that ASTM D5511 (a test standard commonly used in the additive industry) cannot substantiate unqualified biodegradable claims or claims beyond the results and parameters of the test, and that any testing protocol used to substantiate degradable claims must simulate the conditions found in the stated disposal environment.

Don’t take any supplier claims at face value. If your environmental claims for your products depend on additives or other materials manufactured by another company, it is your responsibility to make sure that those materials really do perform as you believe they do. Ask your suppliers for scientific proof. If theirs is not adequate, work with them to develop adequate substantiation, take the job of substantiation on yourself, or find another supplier. Your company’s reputation is at stake.



photo credit: skycaptaintwo via photopin cc 

Thanks to Writing to Make a Difference for the repost

Writing to Make a DifferenceA belated “Thank you” to Leslie from Writing to Make a Difference for republishing my post, Your Customer’s Brain on Computers.

If you are involved in any sort of nonprofit, Writing to Make a Difference is an awesome resource to help you in your fundraising efforts. They offer all sorts of fundraising tips and insights, including free tip sheets you can use to improve your marketing and/or social sector job search. Check them out!

FTC Strikes Again with Green Guide Enforcement

sleeper on mattress
Time to wake up to the importance of monitoring your messaging for Green Guide compliance!

Don’t look now, but the Federal Trade Commission is at it again.

(On second thought, DO look. Hard – at your green messaging if you are a manufacturer or retailer of green products.)

Late last month, the FTC charged three mattress manufacturers with making deceptive  claims for their memory foam mattresses. The claims violated the FTC’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or Green Guides.

In each case, the manufacturers in question had made “No VOC” claims for their products, but were unable to produce evidence supporting these claims. One of the companies, EcoBaby Organics, also made unsubstantiated claims that its products were free of formaldehyde and other chemicals.

The stuff hit the fan even harder for EcoBaby Organics and its alter ego, Pure Rest Organics. Turns out that their products are “certified” through the “National Association of Organic Mattress Industry” (NAOMI) and bear the seal to prove it. Only problem is, NAOMI is a complete fabrication. Although it appears to be a third party certification organization, it is actually part and parcel of EcoBaby/Pure Rest, which award the seal to their own products.

All three companies will be settling with the FTC – an arrangement that not only entails revising all their relevant messaging, but also a host of other red-tape items, including extra reporting and a 20-year probation period.

Not fun.

So, what are the takeaways here?

1. FTC Green Guide crackdowns are occurring in a predictable pattern.

Typically, the agency targets three or more companies within an industry at once for the same or similar infractions. (Some examples: paint and mattress manufacturers for unsupported “No VOC” claims, window manufacturers for unsubstantiated energy efficiency claims, and clothing retailers for false environmental claims regarding bamboo products.)

My suspicion is that once the FTC receives a complaint about a company, they will audit the entire industry. (Trade associations, take note!)

2. Every company making environmental claims should keep a substantiation file. 

Look through all your materials and identify your environmental claims. Then be sure you can back them up with reliable, scientific evidence. If you don’t have it, you may need to retract or modify those claims you can substantiate them.

You don’t necessarily need to exhibit the substantiation publicly (especially if it’s proprietary information), but if you ever do get audited, you’ll be glad to have it on file.

3. Be wary of using proprietary environmental seals or logos.

Seals can be very misleading to consumers, who often interpret them as meaning your product has been certified by an independent third party organization. The Green Guides offer very specific guidance regarding seals and logos. Make sure you understand and follow it.

4. Revising your materials may be a hassle, but it beats the alternative.

Yes, going through each and every web page, brochure, and advertisement is a royal pain in the you-know-where. You may not feel you have the time or the resources.

But not doing so is kind of like having unprotected sex. Your chances of ending up with something nasty may not be huge, but if it does happen to you it’s painful, embarrassing, and is likely to affect you for years.

Do the safe thing and take care of it now. If you need help, I’m here.

[stextbox id=”custom”]If you haven’t yet read my green compliance report, The FTC Green Guides Made Simple: A Companion Guide for Achieving Green Marketing Compliance, request your FREE copy today. [/stextbox]


photo credit: jafsegal via photopin cc


Could anti-child abuse ad backfire in the long run?

Child abuse is a serious problem, and needs to be addressed. And the ANAR ad is a well-executed, well-intentioned attempt to do so. But I’m concerned that in their short-term attempt to help solve the problem, the creators of this ad may well be exacerbating the problem long-term.

I recently wrote a post about a bad ad. This ad used a scene of attempted suicide to make a point about a product. Needless to say, it was  almost universally recognized as being tasteless. And of course it did nothing to improve the company’s image, let alone sales.

Anar child abuse poster
A Spanish anti-child abuse poster offers targeted messages to potential victims and perpetrators of abuse. But could it backfire in the end?

But there’s another ad out there that is receiving all kinds of applause. It is clever. It is well intentioned. It might even help save a life. And yet, I have grave reservations. I suspect that this ad, too, might actually do more harm than good.

The ad was created by the Spanish division of the Grey Group for the the ANAR foundation, a Spanish child advocacy organization. The outdoor poster is intended to combat child abuse by sending separate targeted messages to both children and their potential abusers. In order to do this, the ad incorporates lenticular printing, which allows different images to appear when viewed at different angles.

An adult viewing the poster sees a child’s face and the message, “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” However, when viewed from 4’3″ or lower, the child’s face appears bruised and the message changes to “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” along with ANAR’s child abuse hotline number.

The concept is brilliant. And for older children, it could prove to be life-changing, if not life-saving.

As I said, though, I have reservations. The hotline portion of the ad is targeted at children ages 10 and under. But only about half of this population is even literate. Children under about 5 won’t get the all-important verbal message. All they’ll see is a child’s bruised face.

Think about that for a minute.

Pre-literate children are sensitive to the world in a way that you and I haven’t been for many, many years. They live in a world of images and sensations largely untempered by logic.

What will a four year old child think when he sees the bruised face of the boy in the ad?

I can think of a lot of possibilities, but none of them involve picking up the phone and calling for help.

If the child has not personally experienced abuse, perhaps he will assume that the boy fell off his bike. Or maybe he will mistake the bruising for jam.

But what if the child has himself been abused? What if he carries similar bruises on his own small body, or has seen them on his siblings or friends?

Don’t you think – in the absence of a verbal explanation – that the message he receives might be the very opposite of that which the ad is intended to convey?

Mightn’t the prominent public display of the image of an abused child serve as a validation in the child’s mind that the abuse he has experienced is normal?

The concept of the development of normative beliefs  – the formation of beliefs and world view based on what is perceived as usual or normal in an individual’s environment – is well documented. In a 2003 paper entitled Imitation and the Effects of Observing Media Violence on Behavior, University of Michigan Professor of Communication Studies & Psychology L. Rowell Huesmann writes:

Children’s own behaviors influence the normative beliefs that develop, but so do the children’s observation of the behaviors of those around them including those observed in the mass media…

…(T)he size of the correlation between media violence viewing in childhood and later adult aggression was …higher than the correlation between exposure to lead and IQ loss, between calcium intake and bone mass, between exposure to asbestos and laryngeal cancer, and exposure to passive smoking in the workplace and lung cancer.

Granted, Huesmann’s study focused on active media violence observed through video. However, he also mentions a phenomenon called “desensitization,” in which repeated exposure to blood, gore and violence (including images thereof) eventually negates the innate negative reactions to such things that most humans experience. People who have been desensitized to violence in this manner have been proven more likely to become perpetrators themselves.

Child abuse is a serious problem, and needs to be addressed. And the ANAR ad is a well-executed, well-intentioned attempt to do so. But I’m concerned that in their short-term attempt to help solve the problem, the creators of this ad may well be exacerbating the problem long-term.

I’m no psychologist (and I have no idea if the ad has been effective in its purpose), but doesn’t it seem like exposing young children to images of abused children could easily contribute to the desensitization of young (and older) children to the horrors of abuse, and to the formation of subconscious beliefs that child abuse is normal and acceptable?

Is this ad acceptable? Do its potential benefits outweigh its potential harm? How else could the message be relayed?

What do you think?

One Bad Ad: Hyundai’s unfortunate blunder

Every once in a while an ad catches my attention, either because it’s unusually clever – or unusually bad. Like the ad released last April in the UK by Hyundai Motors. To me, the story is doubly tragic. I’m saddened by the insensitive depiction of human tragedy for no other purpose than to promote a product. And I’m disheartened that the world’s first mass-produced, zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle’s marketplace debut had to be marred with such negative psychology.

The Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell is the world’s first mass-produced hydrogen powered vehicle. Will it survive the negative press generated by its debut UK television ad?

I don’t always keep abreast of image advertising, since I’m more involved in the content marketing and direct response arenas. But every once in a while an ad catches my attention, either because it’s unusually clever – or unusually bad.

Sometimes, bad ads can be (painfully) fun to view. Sort of like watching an old Godzilla movie.

But others are just plain tasteless. Like the ad released last April in the UK by Hyundai Motors, depicting a man attempting to commit suicide by piping his exhaust fumes back into the passenger compartment of his car. At the end, he is unsuccessful because – ha, ha! he owns a Hyundai zero-emissions vehicle.

(I decided not to include the video in this post because I don’t want anything that crass on my blog, but if you really must see for yourself, you can do so here.)

Was Hyundai expecting their “clever ad” to go viral and result in blockbuster sales of zero-emissions cars to people wanting to protect their loved ones from suicide?

Or maybe the brand simply had a death wish. Because the ad did go viral, thanks in large part to Holly Brockwell. The U.K. copywriter wrote a tearful and outraged blog post raking Hyundai and its advertising agency, Innocean, over the coals for making her relive her father’s suicide using the same method depicted in the ad.

“I understand better than most people the need to do something newsworthy, something talkable, even something outrageous to get those all-important viewing figures,” Holly wrote. “What I don’t understand is why a group of strangers have just brought me to tears in order to sell me a car. Why I had to be reminded of the awful moment I knew I’d never see my dad again, and the moments since that he hasn’t been there.”

Why, indeed?

To me, the story is doubly tragic. I’m saddened by the insensitive depiction of human tragedy for no other purpose than to promote a product. And I’m disheartened that the world’s first mass-produced, zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle’s marketplace debut had to be marred with such negative psychology.

I’ve said it before, and this incident brings it home: harping on the negative does nothing to promote green products. People want to feel good about what they buy. Who can feel good about a car that conjures up images of attempted suicide?

There’s one more thing that has me scratching my head – Hyundai’s statement after pulling the ad:

The ad was created by an affiliate advertising agency, Innocean Europe, without Hyundai’s request or approval. It runs counter to our values as a company and as members of the community. We are very sorry for any offense or distress the video caused.

What? The ad was created and aired without Hyundai’s request or approval? Huh? I find it awfully hard to believe that Innocean could or would create and run a major television ad without at least a nod from its client. And if so, then shame on Hyundai.

Hyundai slipped up bad by allowing an ad agency that obviously doesn’t have a clue about green marketing psychology (nor, apparently, human decency) to represent their brand. And they slipped up again by neglecting to protect their own reputation and values, and then attempting to shift the blame.

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Hyundai. The company has an exemplary diversity policy, has donated millions to charitable causes, and is a pioneer in eco-aware vehicle manufacturing. I just want to point out that in green marketing, (and increasingly in all marketing), it’s so important to talk your walk as well as walk your talk.

One Company’s Journey Towards Supply Chain Transparency: Interview with BuyGreen.com Founder Douglas Farquhar

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquar, founder of BuyGreen.com. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard – his company’s proprietary green product rating system – and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

stainless steel water bottles
Figuring out what’s “green” about these water bottles is hard enough, let alone comparing their environmental footprint to, say, a ream of copy paper.

What makes a “green” product green? A simple question, but not so easy to answer. Almost no product is “green” across the board – some features are greener than others, and one has to weigh the environmental pros and cons.

This, of course, is one of the biggest challenges faced by businesses trying to offer more responsible choices – and by consumers trying to make those choices.  The whole scene is confusing, and too often results in consumers just throwing up their hands and giving up – either blindly purchasing whatever “seems” like the best option, or walking away from responsible purchasing altogether.

One Company’s Journey Towards Transparency

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquhar, founder of BuyGreen.com. He launched his online business in 2007 with two goals:

  1. To create a one stop shop for eco friendly products, and
  2. To offer a way for consumers to intelligently compare products based on their environmental impact.

In order to meet the second goal, BuyGreen.com developed a comprehensive proprietary rating system – the Green Products Standard – for all products sold on their site. The Green Products Standard reviews and rates products based on their environmental impact in four key areas: source materials, manufacturing, materials and disposal.

Products are scored from 1-100 in each of these categories, plus each product is given an overall score. (It’s important to note that a positive score, even a low one, still indicates that a product is more environmentally friendly than typical products on the market.) This scoring method is notable because it enables consumers to compare all BuyGreen.com’s products at a glance – making it much easier to make informed environmental choices.

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard, and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

Anne Michelsen: What prompted you to implement the Green Products Standard?

Douglas Farquhar: At the time (that we launched BuyGreen.com), I wasn’t always able to understand objectively why & to what extent a product was green. There are a lot of certifying organizations, but they are mostly product or industry focused. For example, if I want to buy copy paper, I know the FSC certification is very good and I look for that. But if I want a water bottle, how do I make sure I’m making as good a decision?

We take trust very seriously – it’s even reflected in our tagline – and I think the Green Product Standard is a pillar of trust for our customers.

Anne: Please tell me about the process you went through to bring the Green Products Standard into being.

Doug: We started out taking it from a laymen’s perspective. Some of these certifications you need to be a PhD to make sense of them, your eyes kind of blur over. We wanted to put it in plain English and in layman’s terms, to make it accessible to the average Joe.

It’s really a part of our product selection process. The initial part of identifying products is not particularly scientific. It’s a gut reaction – “oh, that one looks really good.” That’s how our product selection starts. Then we get samples of the product itself. We want to know that it’s something of quality, that it will last longer than the warranty. We also use the products make sure our customers will have a good experience.

We then ask the supplier to participate in an online questionnaire. There’s often some back and forth communication to make sure we understand the information they supply, and they understand what we’re looking for. We use an algorithm to come up with a rating. Once we accept a product, at the bottom of the product page there’s a link to a full 2 page report for each product.

Once we got the basic framework worked out, we ran it by a number of people for feedback – sustainability consultants in different areas. Our basic theory was, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. We took that approach and threw it against the wall to get people thinking.

I shudder to think back on it – it’s involved several thousand ratings. It was – is ― a huge endeavor.

Anne: What has been the reaction from suppliers?

Doug: We’ve had varying reactions. Some are happy to complete the product questionnaires, some do it grudgingly.

Our merit rating is 0 -99 (it’s technically impossible to reach 100.) One supplier – her products rated in the 60’s – only met the threshold for two of the four basic components. She was fixated on the fact that her product rated a 68, and applied it to her academic experience – “my product is not a D+ product.” What I couldn’t seem to get across to her was that we only apply the standard to products we’ve already identified as green. By virtue of being rated, you’re several steps ahead of most; a 68 actually puts you in the top quartile. But she opted not to go further.

We’ve had some manufacturers, though, who got a rating and said, “what can we do to get a better rating?”

I look at this whole thing as a journey, a marathon rather than a sprint.  Whether it’s the consumer changing their purchasing habits, or the manufacturers changing their products, we’re still moving along for a greener world.

Having a number is a good place to start a conversation. Scores are something people are familiar with and have a good understanding of. Especially in the e-commerce world, we’re all familiar with comparison shopping. A rating system like ours allows customers to have an apples-to-apples comparison to, say, the water bottle and the copy paper.

Anne: And that’s great, especially if they’re looking for a gift and need to compare two very unlike things.  How have customers responded?

Doug: Historically, our light green customers have taken more of a blind approach. They just want to know it’s “green.”  Our dark green customers often have a very specific belief – all things from China are horrible, all plastic is bad.

Of the green buyers, some really like the Green Product Standard a lot and some are oblivious.

With the poor economy the greenwashing situation has become a bigger problem. (We’ve noticed that) more traditional manufacturers and suppliers are trying to put a new spin on their products, and are seeing green as an opportunity to, if not grow, then at least maintain their business. You certainly have traditional stores that suggest that (a product is) green, but it’s often a complete mystery why it’s “green.”

A lot of times the info as to why and to what extent a product is green, is nowhere near the product. You have to go search for it. Or, you’ve found the accreditation and now you’ve got to go find the product.

(Both) transparency and easy access to information are important considerations if you’re trying to avoid greenwashing. Most people don’t have the time or interest in doing the research. They just want to know it’s safe and eco friendly, so they can buy it and move on. (Our program) gives consumers easy access to reliable information they can base their decisions on.

Anne: It’s interesting to hear you make the distinction between different types of consumers. Can you elaborate? Do you have an idea what percentage of your customer base you’d describe as “light” vs. “dark” green?

Doug: No, not really. We get approached from all sorts of different angles.

When we started we were somewhat confused by the LOHAS consumer. We thought people would want to vote with their wallets. Clearly there are consumers out there that do that with some regularity, but regrettably they are the minority. I think it’s somewhat exacerbated by the economy.

Personal safety and health are often the biggest motivators, and by the way, if it’s softer on the planet that’s icing on the cake.

I think we’re starting to see a bit of a change. Selfishness continues to be a motivating factor, but over the last 12 months with some of these weather conditions and gas prices you’re starting to see some of the non LOHAS consumers turning the lights on in their heads. With Sandy, we started selling solar powered flashlights, etc. That motivation was more necessity, but it seemed to come along with a realization that green has merit.

(Interest in going green) comes from all sorts of different places. Sometimes it’s just awareness. Like, “I didn’t know there’s a solar powered flashlight, or biodegradable garbage bags.”

I think we’re facing both a challenge and an opportunity. Ask 100 people if they’re interested in going green, and most will say yes, but there’s a big gap between saying and doing.  Any time we can bridge that gap, whether it’s simple education or making a personal connection, it makes a difference.

Anne: Are you aware of anyone else who’s doing this? Wal Mart comes to mind with their sustainability index – do you know of any others?

Doug: WalMart has some areas where it has a bit of a black eye. As the largest retailer in the world they have an unbelievable opportunity, but I think they’re backed off lately. For them it was more this conceptual effort, where it was going to get pushed down through the supply chain.

The Good Guide is a really good resource, although they were just bought by Underwriters Laboratory – I don’t know what effect that will have. I think they’ve done a good job. But they wouldn’t talk with the manufacturers, they just pulled publicly available information. And they have more of a social focus.

Anne: Tell me about your new website, AskGreen.com.

Doug: From a business model, we hope to have a portfolio of green business websites.  We’re developing GreenCouture.com, we’ve got PrettyHealthy.com in the works, etc. We were going to develop blogs for each one, and thought maybe there was something we could do that would apply to all our ecommerce websites.

And hopefully something interactive. Every time we do a show or something, a person waltzes up and looks at a water bottle or something and asks questions.

AskGreen.com is very new – we’re still working on the questions and answers section. But we hope to offer something of value. To get instant answers, obviously, Google & other search engines provide answers, but sometimes there are things that can’t be answered in a Google search. We’re hoping to offer a place where people can come with their green product questions and get them answered.

Anne: Linked In just dumped their Answers section – are you thinking of jumping in and filling the gap here for green topics, inviting lots of interaction, or will it be more set up as an authority site?

Doug: We’re going to let the interest and demand dictate what direction it will take.

Anne: Thank you, Doug – it’s been a real pleasure speaking to you!

Doug: You’re very welcome!

Please enter your comments and questions about Douglas Farquhar’s insights and/or the Green Products Standard below!


 Anne Michelsen was not paid for this article.