A new way to see green

With environmental issues taking a back seat to financial concerns among consumers, companies in this sector are rethinking their PR plans.

Theresa Marquez, chief marketing executive at Organic Valley, recalls when in early 2008 the company was growing at a rate of 36%. Back then, green was still the big story and many PR firms considered it to be the most promising growth area for the industry.

But today, the recession has forced the green industry to reevaluate its messaging on two fronts. Not only is green facing a more competitive news climate, but, as consumers cut back, some speculate that green will lose its appeal.

This has been true for Organic Valley. Marquez says the company's higher-than-expected 36% growth in the first quarter is now down to 8%.

“But that's still a pretty positive story in today's [economic] environment,” she says. “And the core organic consumer is not going to switch.”

Even so, last year's green story that centered on growth and expansion is no longer the reality. The current media coverage has mostly shifted to the feasibility of creating green jobs, or it considers whether the recession is hurting the green sector. There are even fewer “green” reporters, as environmental journalists at many outlets, including CNN, were laid off last year.

Though Organic Valley has seen slowed growth, Marquez says that green companies are well poised to tap into a larger consumer shift that is currently under way. When people are faced with economic collapse, many will reassess their own values and their role in the economy, she says.

“[People realize] we need a major correction in both our country and world,” Marquez adds. “We have to have less debt, eat less meat, [have] less material items. There's a lot of soul-searching going on.”

This sentiment has prompted Organic Valley to promote its mission, including its objective to pay farmers a living wage and its “triple bottom line,” which emphasizes profits, people, and the planet. Additionally, at a time when the business pages are loaded with companies sinking amid debt and other woes, Marquez says Organic Valley, which works with Haberman & Associates, offers an upbeat business story about its zero debt and larger community vision.

“So every negative story out there, there's a flip side,” she explains. “The organic industry should still continue to be [a] pioneer, leader, and model for change.”
 
Challenging perceptions
“In the last few months, many reporters have called us and said, ‘Tell us how much [Ecover] is suffering because of the economy,'” says Kathy Kniss, PR director for the Clean Agency, which represents Ecover, a producer of ecological cleaners. “And I have to tell them, it's not what we're seeing.”

The assumption is that green products cost more and people won't be willing to pay the premium during a recession. Yet Kniss says Ecover has made it a priority to challenge the notion that green products are more expensive than conventional ones.

“[Ecover products] are highly concentrated and you don't need to overuse them,” Kniss says. “We've been involved in studies that show that Ecover is either pennies more per ounce – or even less expensive – than the conventional brands when used correctly.”

Publicizing studies like that can be key during the economic turmoil. But the company also uses creativity to attract new customers.

During the summer, the PR team went to five Laundromats, offering to do people's laundry using Ecover detergent. The takers were then given coupons for future purchases.

“That really reinforced our messaging,” Kniss recalls.

But some green companies are taking advantage of what is already captivating the media's attention. For example, Method – a green homecare and personal products company – was able to tie the launch of its new phosphate-free dish soap to legislation banning dish soap with phosphates in Washington state earlier this year.

“It was a topic that was already in the news and we were able to tie our launch in with that,” says Katie Molinari, PR manager at Method.

The company also participated in National Parking Day, a global event where people temporarily transform metered parking spots into public parks to raise awareness about green space in cities.

“It's about finding ways to get the message out in a tough climate,” Molinari says. “We don't have a big advertising or PR budget, so we're always looking for creative ways to leverage brand awareness.”

Green companies launched before 2007 are better prepared to handle some media neglect, she adds.

“We launched in 2001, when green was not seen as a priority and an environmentally friendly product had a misconception that it didn't work,” Molinari recalls.

Another strategy for successful green companies is to identify underserved markets that might be interested in green products. Ecover expanded its reach to new users this year by launching an ecological boat and carwash cleaner. Research showed that many boat owners used regular soap to wash their boats, but were open to greener alternatives, Kniss says.

“We sent out 30 to 50 samples of Ecover boat and carwash to top boating magazines,” Kniss says. “Then this became... an issue that people who are nautical were interested in.”
 
Stories of hope

The new year can also signal a time when people have an appetite for stories about hope.

“In January, people like to read positive stories,” Marquez notes. “The New Year is a time of hopeful stories. People want to feel hopeful going forward.”

But will the audience for green turn fickle once the optimism of the New Year wears off? Probably not, Kniss says.

“Ecover had a 25% increase in profits over the last year,” Kniss says. “That indicates that users are not switching back to a cheaper brand. It's the bigger-ticket items they are cutting back on.”

For the more fickle, however, Kniss has a different – and much harsher – message.

“If you cared about saving the fish 15 minutes ago,” she says, “and now you don't want to spend the extra 50 cents to save the fish, what does that say about you?”

Making the green message resonate
  • Tie green messages to topical news, like the election or eco-legislation
  • Reach niche consumers with targeted messages
  • Focus on a large global objective, as well as the immediate bottom line
  • Promote studies that indicate green products aren't much more expensive – and are equally effective – to conventional brands

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