Green marketing: Seven ways to separate yourself from the pack

Now that Green is becoming commonplace, you'll want to use smart marketing techniqies to rise above the crowd.

This question from a gentleman in the building industry came my way a couple of weeks ago:

“Now that everyone is building green, how do you separate yourself from the pack? What does it take to sell green to the homeowner?”

It’s a good question and one that is relevant to many businesses outside construction as well.  Here is a (slightly edited) recap of my reply:

Hi Dan,

Thanks for your query.  Here are some thoughts on your question.

1. In most cases, don’t use Green as your front-line benefit. You’re absolutely right.  There’s nothing unique about green any more.  In most cases, green shouldn’t be your front-line benefit.  However it does play a great supporting role.  I like to keep up with green marketing research as much as I can, and every survey I’ve read recently indicates that Americans are continuing to shift more towards Green products.  Even the recession hasn’t put a dent in Green spending.

On the other hand, there’s an exception to every rule, and you definitely want to get a good handle on what’s important to your clientele.  If you’re selectively marketing to the very environmentally conscious, you might very well want to position your product as a solution to your customers’ environmental concerns.  For example, say you’re a solar PV installer in Wisconsin.  A recent survey of Wisconsin homeowners who installed solar electric systems indicates that their top two reasons for purchasing were to protect the environment and to reduce their personal carbon footprint.  In this case you’d definitely want to highlight the environmental benefits of your product, as well as target your marketing efforts towards the environmentally concerned.

2. Highlight savings, build value. Especially in this economy, saving money is a huge incentive for most people.  People are starting to catch on that greener choices often result in savings. Even if your product is more expensive, see if you can show your customer that it’s a better value and will save them money in the long run.

3. Find your prospects’ emotional hot buttons. Many green products also carry other, often related but more personal benefits which may resonate more strongly with your prospects.  For instance, they can contribute to more comfortable, healthier homes or be more aesthetically pleasing.  Figure out which emotional hot buttons appeal to your customers and show them how your Green products can make them healthier, happier, etc.

4. Keep up with available perks. If you’re a contractor or installer, or sell high-efficiency appliances, make sure you keep up to date with all the federal, state and local incentives available to your customers.  These can often tip the balance in your favor. (If you’re a builder or installer, or have implemented green practices in your own business, you may qualify for some extra perks,too!  Check out’s posts on Green Tax Incentives and Save Money Through Energy Efficiency Laws. )

5. Segment your customer base. Realize that not everybody thinks about green the same way.  You can split the population up into a number of categories based on their green buying behaviors and understanding of sustainability issues.  Try marketing in different ways to the various segments of your customer base.  Referring back to my first point, it’s crucial to understand what’s important to your customers.  As a Green builder, you may find that some of the products you offer – say, energy-efficiency products – appeal to people for different reasons, and/or appeal to different people, than others (such as low-VOC paint or reclaimed or recycled building materials.)  Although you may spend a little more to develop different campaigns for each segment of your market, you’re likely to greatly increase your ROI by doing so.

6. Educate, educate, educate! Education is really important.  A lot of people don’t even have green on their radar screen yet.  Many more are interested, but don’t know where to start.  You may find they’re looking to you to help them.  Do a good job, and they’re likely to spread the word to their friends.

A few ways to generate sales and leads through education:

  • In your monthly newsletter or e-zine
  • On your website or blog
  • Video – on You tube, on your website or given to the customer on CD
  • Information packages
  • Teleseminars
  • Giving classes and workshops
  • Contributing articles to newspapers and magazines
  • Public speaking to local groups, hosting your own radio show, etc.

7.Get involved. Precious few companies – even ones promoting themselves as Green – actually seek out comunity involvement.  If you want to reach the die-hard green crowd (not a large portion of the population but a very influential one), or any other niche that’s important to your business, get involved in their causes.  Does your community have a sustainability group or committee?  Join!  Green Drinks (informal nights out at local watering holes) are another good place to network.  How about lending a hand to community projects or charitable causes?

If you decide to go this route, though, be authentic about it.  You have to truly believe in the cause and be prepared to pitch in with the group’s agenda.  If you’re phony and just there to get sales they’ll know it.  But if you stick with it, it will likely pay off very well over time – not just in terms of networking and sales, but socially and spiritually as well.

These are just a few ideas.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What are you doing to promote your own green business?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer who helps Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into Green marketing and sales writing, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.

How will the BP oil spill influence the U.S. solar energy industry?

Exploding oil rigger
Is BP's disaster an environmental 9/11?

It’s big, it’s bad and it’s ugly.  The BP oil spill fiasco is rapidly proving to be the biggest environmental disaster since… well, maybe since the dawn of human history.

The environmental and economic consequences of the spill are already proving dire.  And with 210,000 gallons of crude (at a minimum – some estimate are much higher) spilling into the sea each day, things can only get worse.  For many Americans it feels like a punch to the gut.

But the BP oil spill could turn out to be the wake-up call  – an environmental 9/11, if you will – that triggers real change in public sentiment and policy regarding energy and the environment.  A disaster of this scale will inevitably raise public awareness of the environmental consequences of energy use. While it’s unlikely that many Americans will be willing to give up the lifestyles they’re accustomed to, the gulf spill could be enough of a tipping point in public consciousness to cause more Americans to seriously consider the long-term consequences of their energy choices.

How will this affect the American solar industry?

Well, it may be too early to tell.  But here are a few possible consequences:

  • Rising energy prices. For the first time in recent memory, Americans are now more likely to oppose offshore oil drilling than support it.  And public concern over the safety of offshore drilling could result in legislation and restrictions on the practice.  Even some Republicans, such as governors Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, are beginning to believe that offshore drilling is not worth the risk.  The Gulf oil disaster could very likely influence legislators and regulators to limit offshore drilling and/or require safeguards that could raise its cost.  Either of these scenarios could contribute to rising energy prices.  Which, of course, makes the payback from solar much more attractive.
  • A stronger push for renewables. A May, 2010 poll by the PEW Research Center indicates that Americans overwhelmingly (73%) support increased funding for renewable energy, including solar, wind and hydrogen.  Federal and state renewable energy grants, tax credits and other incentives already abound.  But the spill may trigger even more generous incentives for renewable energy, as well as legislation requiring more energy to come from renewables – both factors that encourage growth in solar.
  • Greater public demand for solar and other renewable energy. The highly publicized BP disaster may get more people thinking harder about their own use of fossil fuel and its long-term consequences.  This could lead to  more demand for solar and other alternatives to fossil fuel – especially if prices and payback are favorable.  Given that solar currently supplies only a tiny fraction of the energy requirements of the United States, even a small uptick in demand for solar installations could result in hefty growth for the industry.

Next up: Will growth in demand for solar result in increased business for solar companies across the board?  What changes can we expect in the industry as a result?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer who helps Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into Green marketing and sales writing, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.

Sustainable Business: A Matter of the Mind

Business man with sledgehammer
It's not just the tool, it's how you use it that counts.

What should a young person do to prepare for a career in sustainability?  John Howley, internationally recognized expert, educator and thought leader on the business of sustainable energy, recently posed this question to a group of green industry professionals on LinkedIn.

Predictably, many of the respondents suggested earning certification in renewable energy and other Green technology.  This reflects a common tendency to equate sustainability with technology.

It’s understandable.  After all, just look around at the world.  The awesome technology our species has developed over the past 200 or so years has enabled us to soar to heights our ancestors could never even have dreamed of.  Unfortunately, it’s also unleashed environmental destruction on a scale even we don’t fully understand.

Mind over Matter

It’s a natural reaction to blame the technology – and to look to alternate technologies to fill in the gap and save us from our own creation.  Solar panels, organic agriculture and the like do indeed hold the promise of a more sustainable approach to living on Planet Earth.

However, the most powerful force for sustainability we have at our disposal is not technology at all.  It’s the human mind.  And it’s our minds, not our technology, which will save – or fail – humanity.

It’s a Matter of Choice

Are you reading this at home?  If you are (or even if you’re not) you probably have access to a somewhat primitive but very useful piece of human technology:  the hammer.  Pick one up if you can.  (Or do so mentally if you can’t.)  Feel its weight in your hand.  You could use this hammer to build a home that can provide shelter and comfort to your family for generations.  Or you could use it to bash someone’s head in.  Same tool.  Same user.  How – and whether – you choose to use it follows from the thoughts in your mind.

We can switch to cleaner technologies.   But without a deep understanding of what is truly sustainable, and a deep desire to get there, what will it mean?  Like the mythical Icarus, we’re likely to keep pushing beyond our limits until we come unglued and fall to earth.

Preserving the Flow

What is sustainability in business but the flow of profits such that the company remains solvent and thriving?  What is sustainability in the world but the flow of life and the conditions it depends on so that the living communities on Earth – including humans – may live and thrive?

Personally, I think in the very near future virtually every career will be – of necessity – a career in sustainability.  We have finally reached the point where we can’t pretend any more that economic sustainability is somehow separate from and independent of ecological sustainability.  The technologies we turn to must then be not only economically viable, but must fit into the natural world in such a way as to support it rather than tear it down.  And that means not only choosing our technologies carefully, but also, like Icarus’s father Daedelus, using them responsibly.

Using our Heads

As marketers and business leaders, of course, this puts us in a hot spot.  After all, it’s our job to get people to buy as much product as possible, right?

Or is it?

Again, let’s use our minds.

Our job is to maximize profits to keep our companies and the economy solvent.   And in the new economy it’s in our best long-term interest to do so in a sustainable manner so the world and future generations also benefit from what we do.  This means we have to work smarter, rather than just mindlessly cranking out more and more product regardless of the consequences.

Here are some ideas for how we can accomplish this:

  1. Be honest with ourselves. Is what we’re doing really viable in the long-term?  If not, how can we start moving in a more sustainable direction?
  2. Educate both ourselves and our customers. True sustainability requires a shift of purpose and a shift of mindset.  It requires us to be far-sighted.
  3. Pay attention to personal relationships and customer service. It’s costly to gain new clients.  The better the relationships you have with your existing customers, the greater your per-capita return – and the more influence you’ll have over their attitudes and future decisions.
  4. Build value. When you can really prove the value of what you offer, you’re less likely to have to lower prices to make the sale.  Being able to command a higher price per item equals greater profits and/or less expense.  And if you’re selling a sustainable product, it places a higher value on sustainability itself.
  5. Use our heads. What business are you really in?  Are there ways you can sell additional services to the same customers?  Can you come up with more efficient ways of doing things?  Remember, few things are more valuable than human ingenuity and good information – and these things can often be sold without harm to the environment.

The physical world is finite.  But there are no limits to human imagination.  And that’s something that can be put to work – and profited from – in any field, technical or not.

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer specializing in helping Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into marketing, sales writing and sustainability, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.

How is marketing solar like pushing a rock?

Lowering a solar panel to a rooftop in Wisconsin
Installing a solar panel. I believe scenes like this will become increasingly common over the coming decade.

As a market force, solar is moving out of its infancy.   It’s been interesting to watch its growth spurt  over the past couple years.  Based on my experience with my own and others’ companies, from following industry conversations on social media like LinkedIn, and from attending educational events such as the Good & Green Marketing conference held last November in Chicago, here is a simple equation describing the solar industry in the U.S.:

Massive public curiosity and interest…

The public has developed a tremendous interest in solar and other clean energy technology.  It’s moved from a fringe, “hippy” thing to a mainstream, albeit cutting-edge, phenomenon.

+ general public ignorance
The public is amazingly ignorant about solar and about energy efficiency in general.

For instance, after attending the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair last June as a solar thermal vendor, my company received a large number of calls from individuals concerned about their high heat bills.  They were hoping to knock them down with solar.  We had to explain to them that, while solar thermal is amazing technology and can be a cost-effective home heating solution, it’s not usually a good way to combat high heating expenses.  Solar is powerful but it’s not fossil fuel.  It needs to be used in conjunction with energy conservation.  Air seal and insulate first, then think about solar.  (In fact, this experience caused us to reevaluate the entire focus of our business.  We have since added Home Performance with Energy Star evaluations and air sealing and insulation services to our offerings for a more wholistic, vertically integrated approach.)

That’s just one example.  For another one, here’s an experiment you can try for yourself:  When solar comes up in a mainstream conversation, try injecting the word “PV” and watch the confused expressions.  (For the uninitiated, PV is commonly-used shorthand for “photovoltaics” amongst those in the solar industry)

= huge potential for growth
Taking the above points into account, I believe there is massive potential for expansion in the solar market.  I like to think of it as potential energy – like a boulder (public interest) teetering at the edge of a cliff, held back by a number of obstacles at its base.  All it will take is the removal of a few stones to unleash the energy that will allow the boulder to fall.

However, many of these obstacles are significant.  As I see it, some of the major ones are:

  1. Cost – My company happens to be located in Wisconsin, where there are some pretty nice incentives programs. Even so, solar is a big investment and a lot of people still see it as beyond their means.  Even with incentives, the payback on PV is too long for the typical mainstream person to consider it.  I am optimistic that technological improvements will shorten the payback in the future (and certain that rising energy prices will, too), but for now it’s a major barrier.
  2. Ignorance – Despite its rising popularity, solar is still not on the  radar screen for the majority of the population. Many more are interested but confused, as in my example above.  Also there’s a lot of confusion between solar thermal (which has a relatively fast payback) and PV.
  3. Skepticism – based on ignorance and sometimes reality.  Comments like these are common:  “Can solar really work in the winter in Wisconsin?”  (Answer: Yes!)   “You’ll never see a payback from solar.” (Answer:  It depends on the system.  For off grid PV?  Maybe not.  For the typical solar domestic hot water system?  Absolutely you will, typically in 7 to ten years but it could be less depending on your hot water usage.)
  4. Fear – of shoddy or incompetent work (happened a lot back in the 80’s and I’m afraid we’re seeing signs of it now as out-of-work contractors and electricians jump on the solar bandwagon); fear of not getting their money’s worth if they sell the property before payoff;  fear of the unknown.

What are the solutions?  Here are a few:

  • Better incentives and rebates – Government seems to be working on this, although it varies a lot by state.
  • Financing options – either through installing companies, banks, specialized clean energy financing companies, or municipal programs like PACE (Property-Assessed Clean Energy) financing, in which communities lend money to residents and the payments are added to property taxes.  (This also addresses the objection of not wanting to make major investments in a home that one might sell before payback is reached.)
  • Education – by schools, churches, and especially business.  I personally believe that education should be a major component of any businesses’ marketing plan, but especially when it comes to renewable energy.  We need to listen to and dialogue with the public.  We especially need to make ourselves aware of questions and objections and answer them truthfully and honestly.  We also need to answer in terms our customers can understand and relate to.
  • Collaboration – We need to frame our information according to the worldview of whatever segment of the population we’re dealing with.  Often the best way to do this is to work together with other non-business entities.  For instance, I just attended (as a vendor) an eco-spirituality forum hosted by a local Catholic church and led by a Franciscan sister.  That woman was able to speak to the people present in words that resonated deeply with them.  I could have gotten up and given them the same information about how important is is to save energy, but she was able to do it so much more successfully than I could have because she framed it in terms of their faith.  Churches and other community groups are starting to speak up for the environment and I think any renewable energy business that doesn’t tap into this is missing a very powerful alliance.  (I say this very respectfully, by the way.)

Marketing solar is an important and exciting field, and one I’m proud to be part of.  I’m sure there are plenty more good ideas and insights out there.  What are some of yours?

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer specializing in helping Green and renewable energy companies enjoy increased attention and greater sales through dynamic sales copy and insightful content.

Subscribe to Anne’s bi-weekly tips and insights into marketing, sales writing and sustainability, and get a complimentary copy of her Green marketing report, Making Sense of the Green Sector: What Every Marketer Should Know About Selling Sustainable Products and Services.