Scientists revealed the full extent of a new environmental danger some weeks ahead of the current Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. The ‘Asian Brown Cloud’ entered doomsayers’ vocabularies just in time for the floods that have inundated Prague and Dresden.
The notion of ‘Green brands’ is a similarly shadowy presence in the consumer arena, but far less acknowledged. An air of indifference has spread over the concept since its high watermark in the early 1990s. The environmental cause is now subsumed by the wider issues of corporate social and ethical responsibility.
As Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton observes, ‘All the decent major companies have some sort of stance or formal set of principles about how they are delivering to that agenda.’
BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ positioning, helped by Landor’s ‘sunburst’ identity two years ago, is perhaps the boldest example of a multinational moving in this direction. Credibility may be in the eye of the beholder, but the roll-out is keeping consultancies Mad River and Small Back Room busy (DW 8 August and 22 August).
According to Landor design director Carl Halksworth, ‘Green branding suggests a fairly one-dimensional message of little interest or engagement to most consumers. The Green attributes of a brand, however, can be a very valuable dimension, especially when communicating with more sophisticated audiences.’
Halksworth has in mind the likes of Government regulators and opinion-formers. It is a far cry from the days when you bought a CFC-free aerosol and hoped everything would be as right as rain. Where, then, does this leave the branding of Green credentials? What does ‘Green’ mean in terms of point-of-sale design?
In a pamphlet published in May, ‘Brand Green: mainstream or forever niche?’, The Fourth Room head of insight Wendy Gordon says the trouble with Green products has been that they ‘ignore the rules of the game called brand’.
Altruism is seldom enough to change purchasing decisions. Marketing on the basis of telling shoppers what they ought to buy, rather than giving them what they want, is also a turn-off. But this is the strategy Green products have classically pursued.
‘Many environmental and ethical brands consciously or unconsciously communicate that the environmental or ethical benefit of the product supersedes all other possible reasons for choosing it. But this may not mirror the reality of how consumers choose in different categories,’ Gordon writes.
What’s missing, she believes, is the ’emotional coding’ that connects a brand with a consumer’s everyday reality. In short, Green brands have a branding problem because they lack the sophistication to appeal to consumer desires.
Julia Powell, director of communications at the ethical-labelling organisation The Fairtrade Foundation, agrees.
‘There is great scepticism about the quality of a product if consumers think that it was produced primarily to serve some charitable or ethical purpose,’ she says.
Clifton adds, ‘In the early days “Green but does it clean” was a common complaint.’ But done well, Powell suggests, packaging can ‘introduce’ ethical issues.
Labelling is clearly a convenient shorthand, but the Fairtrade marque deals with equitable trade, while the Soil Association provides the standard for organic produce. There is no specifically ‘eco-aware’ label, not least because – as Halksworth says – the word ‘Green’ encompasses a myriad of concerns, from recycled paper to energy efficiency.
Clifton thinks Green brands ‘can and do look stylish’, citing Green & Black’s, Aveda and Organics.
‘All [of these brands] have shown it is possible to combine great, aspirational and innovative products with an environmental or social stance,’ she says.
Powell points to the fact that Maya Chocolate and CafÃ© Direct coffee are now focused on delivering a high-quality message first and an ethical one second, though she cautions that if the latter is packaged ‘too loudly’ consumers may ‘default back’ to the idea that the product is inferior.
And Halksworth notes, once Green is mainstream it doesn’t differentiate.
He adds, ‘Green is a difficult communication to get right because to most consumers it’s a component part of the message they want to hear, and not the message itself.’
This is the nub of Gordon’s argument. ‘Green is not a brand that can control its promise to the consumer and match delivery to promise,’ she explains. ‘It’s a generic for a large number of ideas.’
Green is not a category then, but increasingly a hygiene factor. Clifton adds, ‘It’s not critical to mention Green overtly, if people believe you have a truly responsible and decent company in the round, [nor is it] a key driver for people to choose that brand.’
It’s hardly surprising, given the lack of clarity around the term and cynicism about ‘overclaim’, that brands tread carefully on the Green agenda. Even major players need to make sure it doesn’t compromise ‘other elements of their communication’, as Halksworth maintains.
But it could be argued that products like Sainsbury’s Perform and Protect, designed by Smith & Milton, borrow Green styling – perhaps even unwittingly – as Green awareness becomes more implicit in the branding process. The design of brands like the fruit drink Innocent might offer a next-generation vision, where – as Gordon would have it – worthiness and strictures are replaced by humour and lightness.