Realism in eco-marketing: the softer shade of ‘green’

Posted on Written by Donald Brewster

49_donbrewster_01Kermit the Frog of “Sesame Street” fame sadly sang, “It’s not easy being green … It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.” And that is what the marketing of “green” products has also turned out to be – neither as easy as anticipated nor, individually, as significantly visible as it needs to be.

Boating relies on clean water, a clean environment and an appreciation of the natural world. It seemed so logical that boaters would not only stand up for protection of their playground, but be passionate adopters of products that best respected preserving and safeguarding it. So far, this has turned out not to be as true in fact as in rhetoric.

“Green” matters, but does it matter enough? For the most committed environmentalists, it clearly does. These are the people who paid higher-than-list price to buy Toyota Prius hybrid automobiles when those first appeared, installed wind generators and solar panels on their homes – even though the payback period would extend beyond their lifetimes – and revel in finding, buying, using or proselytizing over the latest developments in planet-saving technologies.

Most boaters are not so ardent. They don’t want to harm their planet, and they are willing to do what they can to help – as long as that doesn’t take them too far from the path they want to follow. If the biodegradable soap feels gritty or the fuel additive shaves 5 knots off the 60 mph ride, neither gets more approval than a “that’s interesting” comment. The soap and the additive don’t make it to the store checkout line.

Boating, because it is a relatively expensive pastime, is pursued by a slightly older population – people who grew up without Al Gore, bottled water, CAFE standards and gas-guzzler taxes. These people contribute cash to causes, but are less likely to modify their personal behaviors, honed as they have been by decades of practice. Some are pushed into change from their children (or grandchildren), but those who have driven Cadillacs for many years are not asking for the gas mileage rating when they opt for an Escalade SUV.

Younger people, the ones we hope will become boaters (and soon), are closer to the effects of a melting icecap, rivers too foul and odiferous for swimming and boating, and ozone-

depleted skies that elevate the sun’s skin-cancer danger. The boats with which they have experience don’t have toilets that get pumped overboard (Do you remember your parents saying, “Don’t swim around the boat just yet: Your brother’s in the head”?); holding tanks and Porta-Pottis are the norm for the newer boaters. And a declining quality of environment is an inheritance they do not welcome, a situation they are more ready to protest, and a condition they are more prepared to change behavior to mitigate, maybe even spend more to solve.

So what can marketers do that will successfully bridge these generational differences? How do we sell products that are good for our planet, when one target audience is skeptical of any importance to their own lifestyle and the other audience can least afford the premium that environmental soundness usually entails?

Self-interest, and not always the enlightened form of it, has been the strongest force in marketing. The term “marketing” carries a business definition of examining markets (people) to find what they want and then bringing it to them. The creative part of marketing is in shaping the message to inform those people that what you can provide is what they need. Beyond all the complicated research is a simple test: Will the people you want to sell to see your presentation and have a positive response to their first question, which is “What’s in it for me?”

Regardless of the method by which this message is delivered, whether in print ads, TV, the Internet or a boat show, if the prospects don’t think you’ve got what they want, they are not coming. So, selling “green” needs to get past what its producers think they are delivering and focus more on what connection they can make with wants and needs. This suggests that more than a single approach will be necessary – perhaps one for older members of the market and another for the younger.

It has been interesting to observe the marketing of “green” technologies for houses and offices. Older homeowners and commercial developers with shorter turnaround horizons spend little time describing operational cost savings of environmentally efficient buildings. Instead, they stress the “rightness” of them. Both groups, the older customers and these developers, won’t be capturing those savings: the higher initial cost requires too many years to amortize. But I doubt there are any homeowners or commercial tenants who do not want to “do the right thing.” Yes, there is an aura to being environmentally sensitive. Housing and commercial space aimed at younger people positions “greenness” as a cost saving, more than just being the right thing. One approach sells the planet, the other the wallet.

In the world of boating, greenness now takes many forms: sailboats using the wind; engines burning less fuel, running electro-motive propulsion, or eliminating CO from their exhaust; bottom paint with biocides that leave no toxic residues; hull-molding processes that prevent VOCs from escaping into the air; composite faux-wood that saves teak trees; slower-speed passagemaking that might get miles per gallon instead of gallons per mile; and on and on.

Do you see a problem here? I do. There are so many “green” things happening that they are becoming background noise. Each one, held up for scrutiny, is admirable, and we should give it applause. But after applauding the long list of great ideas, our hands get sore from clapping and we stop taking as much notice.

The critical task for those bringing greenness to boating is to determine what aspect of their product connects and causes prospective customers to immediately say, “This is what I’m looking for” or “This solves the problem I’m having.” In some cases, this will require inventive positioning. Greenness can be an important sales feature and, for certain, all of us want greenness to succeed for ourselves, our children and generations to come.

Perhaps a few readers will know all the lyrics to Kermit’s song and remember, near its ending, when he sings, “Green can be big – like an ocean.” I hope so.

Donald Brewster joined the marine industry in the 1960s, helped launch Sail magazine in 1970, and started his own advertising agency, now named Brewster Strategies, in 1973. He can be reached at donald@brewsterstrategies.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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