Getting the green gift right

Faced with increasing environmental awareness, companies want to give their brands a green image, but their strategies will only work if they truly reflect the brand’s values. By Nathalie Kilby

There is little doubt we are in the midst of a green zeitgeist. Once, committed environmentalists were considered beardy-weirdy, sandal-wearing hippies; now we all share concerns about climate change and our impact on the environment. Even The Sun newspaper is planning a “Green Day” next month to encourage readers to do their bit. Global warming is considered to be fact by the majority, and consumers are questioning their own consumption habits and those of the products and brands they buy.

Companies across all sectors are looking to prove their “green-ness”. As Andy Maxwell, creative director at Intelligent Marketing Business, the first carbon neutral agency in the UK which works with the CarbonNeutral Company, says: “Many companies traditionally held back from exploiting their green credentials for two simple reasons; it either lacked credibility or commercial gain. Now you can’t move without someone thrusting their green products or services in your face. Consumer demand (and legislative enforcement) has suddenly made ‘green’ big business. Everyone is exploiting their newly-found eco-potential. Consumers, however, are becoming increasingly savvy – the slightest whiff of ‘greenwash’ and your name will be ‘blogged’ in mud in seconds.”

But what about freebies?
Do consumers really care about the impact of a free gift or competition prize? As Maxwell points out, people are fickle customers, and Charles Croft, managing director at The Marketing Store, agrees: “The hype around Anya Hindmarch’s ‘I’m Not a Plastic Bag’ bag synthesises the question of whether environmentally friendly and ethically sourced products matter to consumers. On the surface the popularity of this reusable product and accompanying furore over the revelation that it was sourced in China suggests these two variables absolutely do matter. But on closer inspection good old-fashioned attributes such as product design, marketing and value matter more than whether the product is green or ethically sourced. This is not to say these variables do not matter – but they do not drive purchase.”

Greig McCallum, planning partner at Personal, says it is important not to assume that all customers will react in the same way. “Unquestionably, UK consumers are far more environmentally aware and embracing green habits in terms of the products they buy. However, what might be perfectly acceptable to one group of consumers will be a red flag to another. Brands must realise consumers are not one homogeneous group, especially about emotive issues such as green matters. Don’t assume one size will fit all – it will, but very badly.”

Consumers are looking for companies and their products to become greener so they too can reduce their impact and feel better about the products they buy or are associated with. And indeed, they will react if they do not like what they see or hear regarding environmental impact or business practice. Victoria White, head of activation at top integrated agency Tullo Marshall Warren, says/ “When pen manufacturer Prodir sent out a marketing mailer that included a pen packaged in a foam and plastic box earlier this year, it received 190 responses. But these weren’t about the pen. They were about the damage the packaging was doing to the environment.”

Upholding brand values
The Marketing Store’s Croft argues the reality is that for any marketing or purchasing director product creativity and the price motivates their decision on what incentive they offer. He adds: “Social responsibility, whether it is about the conditions of manufacture or the nature of materials, does matter but it does not drive their decision. They may tell you differently but their actions are what matters.” He believes that how companies communicate their brand values to consumers is pivotal. “It is a simple question of hypocrisy. If a brand is a category leader or it puts itself out there as a leader on environmental friendly materials or social responsibility then a company’s business practice must be able to withstand the scrutiny of a voracious media and opinion formers who love to exploit the relativism of today’s society for their own gain.”

Stuart Evans, general manager of loyalty marketing agency ICLP, agrees that cost is a consideration in promotions and incentives, but says: “Although green issues are becoming increasingly pertinent, companies that use them as incentives should only do so if it matches their company ethos and culture. If not, the consumer may view them as a shallow gesture and a gimmick.”

McCallum also thinks companies must look to themselves before offering consumers green incentives: “Marketers need to look at what their own brand’s values and ethos tell them. Consumers expect brands to act responsibly, even in areas they can’t see. Your own brand values should dictate how you behave and act. Heed them. Even if you think you can get away with it, don’t. You’ll get rumbled in the end.”

TMW’s White argues that sourcing ethical promotions is set to increase – but he also warns that companies must ensure “they’ve thought the whole thing through”. She, too, highlights events surrounding Hindmarch’s “I am not a plastic bag” for Sainsbury’s. “In this case, the primary appeal to consumers is likely to have been exclusivity, but there’s no doubt consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the ethical and environmental background of products (whether they are purchases or freebies). Those businesses that recognise this with regard to sales promotions and, for instance, promote the greenness and fairness of their freebie on a covermount will, in these early days, create a real point of difference about their magazine and may well see increased sales as a result.”

The range of green gifts
Eco-incentives offers gifts from across the spectrum, and counts Sky among its clients, having ordered a range of bamboo computer products that are lead free and, except for electronic components, bio-degradable. Other suppliers offer clothes or stationery products made from recycled plastics and white goods. But more brands are getting in on the act in other ways. Technology giant Dell is enabling consumers to contribute to tree-planting schemes to offset their technology purchases.

Maxwell at Intelligent Marketing says those brands that succeed with green gifts are those that have earned the right to do so. Brands that live by their values must understand their audiences. “Living by your ‘green’ values means constantly reviewing your green process and procedures, and having integrity with suppliers, staff, and shareholders so they can become your eco-champions,” he says. “Only then will your customers believe your green gift is genuine.”

The green bandwagon is fast becoming a juggernaut, but it is clear that whatever your marketing activity, you must consider your motivations and actions carefully.

A word of warning: Green may be the new black, but consumers will not be drawn to a brand that simply appears to be conforming to fashion. In areas that concern ethics, consumers want sincerity.

Case study: Honda

Its mission: To be a company that people want to exist 

Honda has led the drive for a sustainable automotive future. It’s recognised the role of its staff in understanding what Honda stands for and how living the brand is fundamental to sales.

One of the challenges for Honda has been how to help dealers inspire customers and join their commitment to a “greener driving” lifestyle. To prove “The Power of Green”, Intelligent Marketing developed an integrated campaign to help Honda dealers “Thank” their new customers for buying a more sustainable form of motoring. Dealers usually give customers champagne or flowers when handing over a new car. Any alternative would have to be packaged as a celebratory gift in order to get dealer acceptance and achieve customer satisfaction. Nor could it cost dealers more than their traditional gift.

Honda’s “greener driving gift” was one month’s CarbonNeutral driving, meaning that harmful carbon dioxide emissions would be offset by supporting forestry and international community projects. The offer was presented to customers in a gift box including a certificate, car sticker and booklet with energy-saving tips and highlighting the importance of being environmentally aware. Inside was also a box of organic, fair-trade Green & Black’s chocolates and all materials were as sustainable as possible. Critical to success was providing online and offline campaigns to communicate the initiative to staff and prospective customers.

Dealers bought 3,000 gifts to give to new customers within the first month of launch and 10,000 were finally distributed within nine months. More than 35,000 customers had the opportunity to experience this gift. Honda knows you can’t buy loyalty with a “freebie” – to gain loyalty from your customers you have to demonstrate it to them.

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