Selling skeptical consumers on the tangible benefits of eco-friendly products is a challenge
As Greenpeace says, “green is the new black.” But that concept might be taking a back seat to a growing mistrust of environmentally friendly claims and a perception that green products are less effective than their traditional — and cheaper — counterparts.
Data show that although all consumer products have tailed off in the sluggish economy, no category is more affected than companies trying to sell green. A 2011 study by marketing and public relations giant Ogilvy & Mather showed that although 82 percent of Americans have “green intentions,” only 16 percent are willing to spend more on products they often deem inferior to their traditional counterparts. “Would you pay more for a product that doesn’t work? But all too often, that’s exactly what consumers read into the green cues on many consumer goods,” the study said. “Consumers demand an acceptable level of effectiveness for products, sustainable or not.”
This concept is especially true in the marine industry, where some companies that market environmentally sound products say they are still encountering an uphill battle when they try to convince consumers to opt for the green product. “It’s not a sell for us,” says Justin Gould, marketing and technology director for Star brite, the Montgomery, Ala.-based manufacturer of environmentally friendly boat cleaners. “Our biodegradable indications are written very small on the labels, almost where the warning is. We focus on the effectiveness of the product instead of a putting a bunch of leaves and feel-good messages on the labels.
“I’ve pushed really hard for it, to spread the message that you can clean your boat and be environmentally friendly,” Gould adds. “At shows, I have both versions — one product that’s marketed as eco-friendly and one that‘s marketed like it has been for years. People always gravitate to the one they know. The formula might be the same, but it’s not a selling point. It’s almost a detractor.”
Not just for ‘fringy hippies’
Gould confirms the findings of the Ogilvy & Mather study, which said the hefty price premium eco-friendly products carry over “regular” products puts off consumers. “They look at fancy packaging that also accompanies that high price and correctly deduce the elitist sensibility,” the study reported. It also showed consumers believe green products are targeting someone else, “fringy hippies and not people like them.”
“Sea Safe is a line we’ve had for 20 years, and it’s always struggled,” Gould says. “It’s always come in behind its counterparts that are not labeled green.”
Jim Seidel, the marketing manager at Interlux North America, agrees. Interlux, which operates within the marine and protective coatings division of parent company AkzoNobel, sells copper-free and low-VOC paints, along with traditional copper-based products. “There are still people who think that the old stuff is better,” Seidel says. “I talk to people all the time who say, ‘What did the [Environmental Protection Agency] make you do now?’ In reality, we’ve been improving products, and sometimes we’re ahead of the legislation so we can provide a better product that is easier on the environment.”
Sometimes the company will be working to meet an internal requirement and will formulate the product to exceed that, Seidel says. “At that point we’ll say, OK, why don’t we do that? Is there a cost involved? Is it going to be 10 percent more expensive or 20 percent more expensive? And sometimes, even if it is more expensive, we’re going to do it anyway, just because it’s the right thing to do. AkzoNobel is very concerned about the impact. It’s within the culture of the company that we do that. So sometimes things end up not exactly where you’d like them to be as far as pricing with the competition, but it’s the right thing to do. That said, we do try to keep those cost differences down so we can stay competitive.”
Although price is definitely an issue for consumers, Seidel thinks there is an additional dynamic at work. That is, boaters often resist change, he says. “There are people who say, ‘This is what I’ve used for years, and I’m going to continue using it,’ ” he says. “This is a very traditional kind of industry. When you look at the demographic of people who have been doing it a long time, they just don’t trust new stuff.”
And that’s despite improvements in the more environmentally friendly products. “We have been able to, over the past 20 years, improve that performance and get to a level where the difference between what we’re selling now and the less environmentally sound product from back then is negligible,” Seidel says. “When we first brought out water-based antifouling paint, people would say, ‘You want me to put that in the water? It’s all going to come off!’ To overcome that was difficult, but now water-based antifouling paint is all over the place. And a lot of people still say, ‘No, I’m going to stick with the old stuff.’ ”
Avoiding the buzzwords
Still, competing with less expensive counterparts is challenging in a broader marketplace beyond those who have a passion for the environment, Gould says. “The hydrochloric acids off the shelf at the hardware store are very cheap,” he says. “We make easy-on, easy-off buffered hydrochloric acid, which is much better for the environment than our competitor. Then we have the Sea Safe version of that, which is a higher-quality acid with less impurities. All of those are biodegradable, but the most biodegradable and most pure is packaged in the Sea Safe label.
“Along with the Sea Safe product, because we charge money for that, customers are also buying into the biodegradable bottle technology,” he continues. “We use an additive that costs quite a bit extra so the bottles will biodegrade in an anaerobic environment, and use the proceeds to do our Sea Turtle Oversight Protection initiatives.”
When customers buy Sea Safe, Gould says, they’re not just buying a green product. “They’re going to get a biodegradable product regardless, but they’re also making a statement and contributing to the overall cause,” he says. “We want to make sure people have the option.”
Most consumers want to see additional benefit to the environmental claims, particularly when the term “greenwashing” has so often been used to describe companies that use vague buzzwords without substantiating their arguments. Several marketing studies have been done to assess the claims of many products, further complicating things for consumers who do wish to buy environmental products, the Ogilvy & Mather report showed.
A 2007 report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing cautioned companies against the use of terms such as “all-natural,” “non-toxic,” “chemical-free” and “green” as a result of so many claims being made by companies that did nothing different in their process. The top two “sins of greenwashing” were the sin of the hidden trade-off — that is, focusing on an environmentally sound aspect of the product and excluding an environmentally detrimental aspect — and the sin of vagueness — the use of buzzwords without explanation or third-party substantiation.
The overuse of such claims, though not prevalent in the marine industry, might make consumers more impervious to environmental claims on their own.
One of the hurdles facing the makers of environmentally sound products is demonstrating benefits beyond the more Earth-friendly one, which can be a challenge for those who believe so passionately in the cause, Gould says.
Seidel agrees. “People want to see the benefit,” he says. “When Benjamin Moore and Sherman Williams first came out with VOC-free paints, they marketed them as being better for the environment, and they didn’t sell. Then they switched to a no-odor marketing strategy, and they took off. The benefit of having no VOCs was that the paint no longer had that smell. They discovered that, and now when you see the paint advertised on TV they talk about the fact that it has no odor, not that it’s low-VOC.”
Seidel continues: “There is some greenwashing going on in the general marketplace, and there is the resistance from people to buy environmentally friendly products because there’s still that feeling that the old stuff was better and lasted longer: ‘It might’ve given me a headache and made the skin fall off my hands, but my boat ran better, and it lasted longer.’ ”
The marine industry continues to lag the general marketplace in this regard, which could be why there is less greenwashing than in other industries, Seidel says. Many innovative products that do emerge in the marine industry often go unnoticed, much to Seidel’s surprise. The National Marine Manufacturers Association has helped by giving environmental awards to products each year, but “you still don’t see those products taking off and selling like you’d hope they would,” Seidel says. “They’re more likely to sell if you can show them the [immediate] benefit. It has to extend beyond environmental and health benefits.”
Fortunately, most marine companies are responsible and realize that in 10 years environmental controls will continue to tighten, Seidel says. “They’re working on products that are not only better for the environment; they’re also better for the people who use them.”
Boatbuilders have been pressed to keep costs down, particularly in the lingering downturn, and some of the more expensive controls on emissions have made it difficult, Seidel says.
He and Gould also see a push coming from marinas that are increasingly touting cleaner products to customers. “I think that marina owners have finally found out that the boat owners want a nice, clean place to have their boat,” Seidel says. And although it’s a long road, he and Gould think people are slowly moving in the right direction.
“Regulation is going to push it somewhat, and people’s perceptions push it somewhat,” Seidel says. “All of that is moving us toward a time when everybody wants everything to be cleaner.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.