The Color of Money: Is Green Marketing a Sign of a Progressive Brand—or a Desperate One?


I’m a devout tree hugger. I started my career as a bright-eyed optimist at the National Wildlife Federation. As already specified on recycled paper in my last will and testament, I’ll bequeath a good chunk of my estate to The Nature Conservancy.
So the recent media coverage of green marketing, which at times resembles a paparazzi feeding frenzy over the latest Britney-Spears-at-Starbucks sighting, should have me doing backflips. Surely all this green attention is a good thing; after all, we greens have been struggling to achieve this level of awareness since the first Earth Day in 1970. So why does the hype over green marketing—both inside and outside the loyalty arena—feel like such a hollow victory? Because it’s too much of a great thing. So, excuse me, my tree-hugging friends, when I venture out on a very thin limb to proclaim: Enough already with green marketing.

In the loyalty space, we’ve seen a similar explosion of green coverage. Since April 2007, when Wells Fargo made renewable energy certificates available for redemption in their Enhanced Rewards program, green rewards options have proliferated. From the American Express Members Project to the Recycle Bank program, we’ve counted no fewer than 20 loyalty programs that have added environmental rewards and benefits to the mix in 2007. The trade press, meanwhile, has killed many trees and emitted much carbon covering the topic.

I knew I’d had enough when Starbucks invited me via email to join a virtual chat titled “Solutions to Climate Change—Be a Part of the Conversation.” I went through my mental checklist. Talk about American consumers’ impact on the environment? You bet. Connect with like-minded individuals to discuss small, everyday changes that make an impact? That’s a start. Do it with other consumers with whom my only connection is a loosely defined passion for premium coffee beverages? Not so much. Can I fight global warming by switching to frappuccinos?

All of this activity indicates that we’re quickly approaching the green marketing tipping point. While adding environmentally friendly rewards to our marketing initiatives is admirable, our collective rush to jump on the green-painted bandwagon has a high potential for consumer backlash.

As responsible loyalty marketers, we must consider both the strategic and behavioral roles that environmental and other philanthropic offers and messages can play in our customer strategy. Here are three best practices to help you build loyalty with your green-minded constituents without appearing desperate or opportunistic.

1.    Get real. There’s nothing wrong with building a PR halo through the addition of ecologically themed benefits to your loyalty strategy. But, how much are you counting on driving redemptions and program engagement as a result? In some cases, consumers certainly will respond—the Amex Members Project was a shining example of such success. But COLLOQUY’s recent Loyalty Demographics Survey suggests that these initiatives play a limited role in consumer engagement.
And, COLLOQUY’s firsthand experience with our clients suggests that environmental reward engagement will be limited. Loyalty program members will always donate points and miles to victims of major catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina. But despite a plethora of green reward choices, our research and direct experience shows that members overwhelmingly choose rewards that fulfill personal economic and emotional desires. The Me’s still far outnumber the We’s.

2.    Act fast. With all appropriate knocking on wood, is your loyalty marketing team ready to react when a major catastrophe does occur? When disaster strikes, American consumers seek any and every way to make a difference. They’ll reach deep to make contributions. They’ll volunteer their time and money. If you allow loyalty program members to direct their accumulated points and miles to those in need, they’ll remember that you facilitated the donation. But don’t simply enable the contribution; magnify it with a matching contribution of your own. Have a contingency plan and a war chest in place to respond rapidly to your members’ desire to help out in the event of an emergency.

3.    Act naturally. Not all brands should jump on the green bandwagon. What causes and charities does your brand already support? If you’re known for supporting children’s charities, for example, then simply expand the belt a notch. Instead of overreaching by adding redemptions that help halt deforestation, add redemptions that encourage children to plant trees. And as you add such complementary green initiatives to your portfolio, employ your marketing dollars more effectively by targeting those customer segments that express an interest in green causes. You may find that it’s a small segment, but you’ll capture their loyalty quickly.

Perhaps the most important step is to take a hard look in the mirror. Are your customers really engaged enough with your brand to want a green conversation with you? Niche brands built on a natural foundation of green-minded customers certainly have a fighting chance to develop such engagement. But just because your members will rally to redeem the exclusive Police concert tickets you make available at members-only prices doesn’t mean they’re ready to log on with other customers to chat online about how to halt climate change.

Yes, the tree-hugger in me feels a certain triumph that “green” has finally made the marketing A-list. But we mustn’t forget that the ultimate purpose of loyalty marketing is to generate not green PR, but green cash. Keep your Earth-friendly loyalty initiatives down to earth by incorporating green rewards and offers as part of a sound customer loyalty strategy. Green may be the color of environmental awareness—but use it too often and it becomes the color of nausea.

This article was written by Kelly Hlavinka, director of COLLOQUY. It is featured in the recently released PR News Going Green: Case Studies in Outstanding Green Business Practices, Volume 1 Guidebook. For more information on this and other PR News Guidebooks, visit www.prnewsonline.com/store.







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