As the green movement gains even more momentum, many companies are encouraging their customers to live a more eco-friendly life - and are offering the tools to do so.
If judged by traditional promotional means, the short film that outdoor clothing manufacturer Nau created, though it eventually led to a mention on Good Morning America, would've been deemed a failed opportunity.
The four-minute film, which detailed the transformation that "friend of Nau" Dee Williams underwent when she moved out of a regular house into an 84-square-foot house on wheels, was originally posted on a portion of Nau's Web site called "The Collective."
On The Collective, Nau curates and highlights visual or textual stories from either internal or external sources, sometimes compensating the latter, that highlight people interested in sustainability.
In addition to posting the film on the Nau Web site, the company submitted it to video-sharing sites, including Yahoo Video in January, where someone at Yahoo liked it so much, he decided to feature it on Yahoo's home page. More than 638,000 people have since watched the clip, which led to plenty of media attention, including a call from Oprah Winfrey - a marketing boon for a company that had only begun contemplating its business plan in January 2005. There was only one problem: The video made no mention of the company, aside from a "Nau presents" at the beginning and the word "Nau.com" at the end.
But the company doesn't pursue marketing in the traditional way - Nau's dedicated approach to the art of storytelling and insistence on tapping the community to be a part of its message make the clip successful just by virtue of the company's stated goals.
"When we speak, we are speaking to an audience that does care about sustainability," says CEO Chris Van Dyke. "There's a broad spectrum of what that actually means - some people just like quality, and others care very deeply about sustainability. [Consumers] are 21st century activists in a way - they're making individual choices."
While Nau is a new company, its principals have a legacy in the CSR space. Both Van Dyke and VP of brand communications Ian Yolles worked at beloved-by-greenies Patagonia. Other executives have worked at Nike, Adidas, The Limited, and VF Corp. As such, they have keen insight into what both small and large companies dedicated to effecting change are able to accomplish.
The company decided to give 5% of sales to a stable of social and environmental nonprofit organizations, which it calls its "Partners for Change." The message resonated with Nau's PR agency, Waggener Edstrom, which has donated 5% of its fees to one of those organizations, Mercy Corps, of which WE CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin is a board member.
Nau has thought deeply about what its "sustainable communications" should look and sound like, notes Yolles.
"We don't propose to have a conclusive answer, but our emerging point of view revolves around the notion of storytelling," he says. "Any story that is authentic and [resonates] is one people want to retell."
The company considers its communications "digitally centric," but not "digitally exclusive" (one of the reasons Nau hired WE was because of its digital prowess), so it launched the brand via its blog The Thought Kitchen, http://blog.nau.com, in August 2006.
"We did that because Thought Kitchen is designed to tell stories about people, ideas, and models that reflect this idea of positive change," Yolles says. "It's a medium that led to dialogue."
While company blogs are often great opportunities for self-promotion, Van Dyke and Yolles say The Thought Kitchen is used more as a way to engage in storytelling through communications about a broad range of topics. Sample posts in mid-September included a report from an Austrian vacation, a tribute to recently deceased Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, and a post about social network Change Agents.
"We've only made two relatively tangential posts to the Nau business," Yolles says. "Beyond that, we've never really blogged about Nau directly."
"They started [their communications] in an intriguing way," says Zorkin. "They talked about the meaningful aspects behind the company."
She adds, "The choice to get people to think [about sustainability] first and then understand what the products are about will appeal to [their audience]."
Van Dyke says the company's target audience of artists, athletes, and activists gets its information from a variety of sources - both traditional and digital.
In those groups, "there is an overlap of people who care deeply about environment and social issues, [have] great appreciation of aesthetics and design, and enjoy outdoor, human-power sports," Van Dyke explains. "We try to talk across all types of media."
As such, the company does, of course, reach out to traditional media, drawing press in BusinessWeek and the Chicago Tribune, as well as Web sites like Cool Hunting and TreeHugger.
And Nau does believe in spreading the message of its sustainable and durable outdoor clothes, and it primarily accomplishes that through the enlistment of third-party storytellers.
"In some cases, we tell a story directly; sometimes, we [influence] someone to speak for us," Yolles says.
The idea of enlisting storytellers was readily apparent at the launches of its stores in Boulder, CO; Portland, OR; and Seattle this past spring.
"We started asking ourselves, 'As we open these stores, how can we arrive in these communities and become a good neighbor?'" Yolles notes.
The solution, he explains, was to tap external "storytellers" in each local community to tell their own personal narratives at the store openings.
Photographer James Balog spoke in Boulder about his images depicting climate change; Alex Steffen, executive editor of Worldchanging.com, spoke at the Seattle opening; and Randy Gragg, who was a design critic at The Oregonian, spoke in Portland.
"We all saw the power of third-party storytelling and knew we would be engaging our partners to build the brand," Van Dyke says. "A lot of us came from traditionally built brands and knew you have to have the courage to surrender some of the brand-building [control] to your customers."
Much of the external storytelling eventually gets around to discussing the company's dedication to donate 5% of its sales revenues (the first round of donations, scheduled to be given recently, totaled $62,000). The company has also set up interactive screens at its stores on what it calls the "Giving Wall" that provides shoppers with information about the Partners for Change that receive donations. This way, customers can decide which organization most befits their own world view. Yolles says Nau designed its charity structure at the stores so that more than half of the partner organizations at a particular location are local.
"We have created, in these nonprofit organizations, a stake in our success," Van Dyke says. "If they can convince their thousands of members to purchase our products, they will directly be giving back to their organization."
While companies of all sizes have been doing things to reduce their own carbon footprints and boost internal green initiatives for some time, a relatively new phenomenon has been to enter into a partnership with consumers to help them adopt more sustainable practices. Nau accomplished this by creating a community dialogue, while other brands have given consumers an opportunity to purchase offsets, compelled them to recycle shopping bags, or used efficient products to educate their customers about larger issues.
Products of education
In April, when The Home Depot launched its Eco Options line, it saw a great opportunity to use the products as a way to further educate the public about its dedication to the environment.
Products classified under the Eco Options umbrella are ones that have "less of an environmental impact." The company has sold more than 350 million of them, which it claims has saved more than 3 billion kilowatts of energy and has prevented 7 billion tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The line comprises more than 3,000 products, including all-natural insect repellents, front-load washing machines, organic plant food, compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, and certified wood.
"We're looking at this as an education process," says Jean Niemi, senior manager of corporate communications, merchandising, and marketing. "[Consumers] hear green hype and buzz - a lot of the surveys show consumers know there is an issue out there - but they don't know how to make a difference."
To highlight the products beyond the store and to give consumers tips on making their own dwellings more eco friendly, the company created a dedicated microsite at www.homedepot.com/ecooptions/ where consumers can read more about the products, take online clinics, and learn more about The Home Depot's dedication to the environment. The company handled this work in-house, but is now working with Manning Selvage & Lee on an Eco Options-themed new-media program.
The Eco Options Web site shows which products fall under five major subject headings: sustainable forestry, energy efficient, healthy home, clean air, and water conservation.
"The Web site is definitely one of our most important tools," Niemi says. "The Web site is all about know-how. To have this whole Eco Options site has been a great way to educate [consumers about] all of the things available to them."
The Home Depot has also held a number of in-store educational clinics, such as "How to Winterize Your Home" and "How to Install a Programmable Thermostat," after sensing that both consumers and the media didn't know what questions to ask about Eco Options.
Niemi says the Eco Options brand gives the company a new storytelling message for educating consumers.
"CFLs are a great example - there are many people out there who don't know the benefits or what it is," she explains.
On Earth Day, Home Depot gave away 1 million bulbs in a promotion, giving it the opportunity to educate consumers about the environmental benefits of switching from traditional bulbs. Despite the fact that consumers could walk out with one free bulb, it turned out to be the highest day of sales for CFLs in the retailer's history. Niemi says average daily sales have increased since the promotion.
CFL bulbs are also fitting into Citi's green consumer outreach, as the financial services giant is offering consumers green options for its "Thank You" rewards program. Customers can redeem those points for wind energy credits, solar-powered lights, CFL bulbs, and other sustainable products.
"There's a widespread increase in environmental awareness on the part of consumers," says Pam Flaherty, Citi's director of corporate citizenship, and president and CEO of Citi Foundation. "We see that from research and behavior from our customers."
Citi announced in May that it will devote $50 billion over 10 years to address global climate change.
"A lot of what we have done over a number of years is built a solid story about our environmental leadership and embedded it in all facets of our [operations]," Flaherty says. "We've made investments in clean technology and a commitment to reduce our own environmental footprint."
Citi is also urging consumers to switch from paper bills, which have high carbon and paper costs, to electronic billing. As an incentive, the company has offered to plant a tree through a partner organization for everyone who makes the switch.
"There was a customer who was skeptical that a tree had been planted, so we connected the customer to the organization," Flaherty says. "It's been successful from a marketing and [business] perspective. The customers who signed up really loved the idea."
She says the key issue for sustainability is not how much customers are willing to express interest, but whether they'll take action.
"There are indications that the 'action' part is becoming [more] relevant," Flaherty says.
Action from customers who care about sustainability can come by way of stout advocacy or loud criticism, based on a company's marketing message and track record.
Nau's Van Dyke points out that, given its audience, everything the company does, from marketing to operations, has to adhere to its stated goals of trying to reach sustainability.
"Our consumers are incredibly cynical and well-informed," Van Dyke says. "People who are promoting themselves in doing one thing, but behaving in another way will be found out. If you're promoting yourself, it better be real."
But, he adds, "If you're truly doing what you say you're doing, it's a huge opportunity to build a brand."