New Palette for Green Marketing

Weaving the environmental message into the day-to-day operation

By Matthew Schwartz



It's not easy being green. Marketing products and services based on a brand's commitment to improving the environment is changing. Consumers are a lot more discerning these days about what companies say they are doing to make the planet a greener place, whether that's promoting clean technology or plugging renewable energy.

And with consumers of every demographic stripe becoming more environmentally conscious, brands can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines.Indeed, a groundswell seems to be emerging throughout corporate America, whether financial, automotive, or industrial brands, that companies must play a significant role helping to protect the planet.

This past June, for example, representatives of more than 100 businesses joined a coalition that plans to commit to greenhouse gas limits set in the Paris Agreement despite President Trump's decision to withdraw from the 195-nation accord, according to The New York Times. Brands are even starting to expand how they communicate their green messaging. When Hyundai rolled out its new Ioniq line of hybrid vehicles earlier this year, the automotive company was careful to develop a message catering to "green fence-sitters," or folks who may be ready to make the switch to alternative fuel vehicles but need convincing, says Hyundai CMO Dean Evans.

One advertising spot features a disparate group of people singing about their reservations about hybrid cars: "I'd like to drive a hybrid car/but I'm not sure it's for me/I don't eat kale/ and I've never hugged a tree." At the end of the ad a voiceover announces, "You know, the world didn't need another hybrid. It needed a better hybrid. Introducing the Hyundai Ioniq, the most fuel-efficient car in America."

An accompanying ad from the campaign portrays the same group of people singing the praises of the Ioniq cars they purchased: "Oh, I just bought a hybrid car/This Ioniq that you see/ Who knew that it would be the perfect ride for me?/It sips the fuel/the tech is cool/This baby really goes."

"It's a bigger message than just green," Evans says. "It's more about providing green solutions for people and demonstrating that there doesn't need to be compromises in driving a fuel-efficient vehicle."

Car buyers are taking note; in May, Ioniq sales increased 39 percent, compared to April, according to Hyundai. "Our goal is to show consumers that Ioniq is a fuel-efficient car that doesn't look or drive like a typical hybrid," Evans says. "We want to show that we're investing in innovative technology that seamlessly fits into what people demand from their car."


Showing Proof Points

Hyundai, whose annual "Road to Sustainability" report lays out the company's long-term strategy for improving the environment, is one of the top 25 greenest brands in America, according to a study released earlier this year by the research company Brand Keys. The list also includes Amazon, Apple, The Home Depot, Nike, and Xerox.

One of the most common traits shared among the greenest brands is the level of consumer engagement/loyalty attributed to the company's environmental efforts — an average of 11 percent, among other brand attributes such as customer relations, products, and services.

"It comes down to proof points that the company can show and brands only have those numbers when they bother to measure their environmental efforts," says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys.

Part of what separates these companies from the pack green-wise, Passikoff adds, is that they are sincere with consumers about the positive effects their policies have on the environment. "It's making a green message part of the day-to-day operation, and showing that green is part of what you are as a company," he says. "It's not like, 'Oh, April 22 is 60 days away, so where's our Earth Day campaign?'"

Instead of developing one-off campaigns or events, brands need to bake green marketing into the company's DNA and entire messaging framework, experts say. (See "3 Ways to Cultivate Green Marketing," below.)

Take NASCAR. Since its 2008 debut, NASCAR Green has collaborated with key stakeholders to reduce the sport's environmental impact, promote green technologies, and educate fans about how they can help to protect the environment. NASCAR Green operates multiple initiatives, ranging from a long-term bio-fuels program across NASCAR's three national touring series to a partnership with Liberty Tire to recycle NASCAR's discarded tires into sustainable products.

The effort also includes a digital tree-planting effort, offering fans the opportunity to donate a tree in an area of need across the U.S. (One mature tree during its lifetime absorbs about one metric ton of carbon dioxide, or the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by a NASCAR Sprint Cup car driving 500 miles.) To date, more than 400,000 trees have been planted, enough to offset carbon emissions for all NASCAR national series racing for the next 40 years.

"We know we have a responsibility to the environment; it can never be just about marketing," says Catherine Kummer, senior director of green innovation at NASCAR. "You must invest time and resources to collect measurable, science-based results before implementing a comprehensive marketing strategy."

NASCAR promotes its various green activities via TV spots broadcast during the Monster Energy Cup Series. The environmental efforts continue to resonate with NASCAR's audience: 85 percent of "avid" fans are aware of NASCAR Green, while 76 percent recognize the initiative as showing that NASCAR cares about the environment, according to a 2015 study by the racing organization.


Keeping the Conversation Going

GE's Ecomagination, which debuted in 2005, also takes a holistic approach to green marketing. "In the early days we did lots of advertising, both TV and print, but as things have evolved we're now using more digital communications, social media, and aligning our efforts with customers and stakeholders," says Deb Frodl, Ecomagination global executive director at GE. "It's always been a business strategy, aligned with innovation, and has always been more than just a 'campaign.'"

Ecomagination, which now has a portfolio of 74 qualified products and services encompassing clean technologies and energy efficiencies, fosters collaboration on several environmental fronts. For instance, at the recent Minds + Machines conference in Berlin, GE hosted the "Ecomagination Challenge Hackathon," a two-day event featuring 100 developers and engineers tasked with finding ways for decarbonizing Europe.

One of the ways GE spreads the word about Ecomagination's various activities and programs is via, which features a digest of environmental-related content and thought leadership articles distributed both externally and internally.

"We have a large group of stakeholders who view the site for information and perspectives concerning the environment and business," Frodl says, adding that a regular stream of Ecomagination-related content helps to "keep the conversation going."

For its part, Fidelity Investments in May launched the Fidelity U.S. Sustainability Index Fund and Fidelity International Sustainability Index Fund in response to the growing interest for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing.

To get the word out, Fidelity launched an online Learning Center featuring educational resources on socially responsible investing. Investors can also access stock-level ESG research or use the mutual fund and ETF screening tools on to view funds that are classified by Morningstar as "Socially Responsible."

For large brands and organizations, the overriding challenge with green marketing is to strike a balance between how to effectively communicate a company's myriad efforts to improve the environment and how to pay for those communications.

"There are a lot of variables around green marketing in terms of pricing and consumer demand," Hyundai's Evans says. "We're recognizing that [green marketing] is a corporate-governance issue, on top of the campaigning, because we really believe that, as a transportation company, we have a responsibility to make Earth a greener planet."




3 Ways to Cultivate Green Marketing

Green marketing can be tricky because of a slew of regulations governing how brands promote their environmental efforts. That's why it's crucial that CMOs work closely with their legal counterparts to ensure that green campaigns don't skirt any rules or put the brand in hot water. Ron Urbach, chairman of Davis & Gilbert and co-chair of the law firm's Advertising, Marketing, and Promotions Practice Group, shared a few tips on how brands can cultivate and maintain green marketing.

  • Engage passionate consumers. Companies can use environmental marketing to engage consumers who are passionate about a brand's products and/or services. However, the message cuts both ways. "Consumers who care about environmental marketing are well informed and care deeply about the cause," Urbach says. "If a brand does not comply with the rules in the environmental space, the fear is not only that the government will come after you, but consumers will as well, using the weapon of consumer class-action lawsuits."
  • Look to collaborate. In crafting a green message/marketing strategy, brand managers may want to reach out to environmental organizations to help inform the campaign and activate the message. But marketers need to do their homework. "Before marketers tie in with any [environmental] groups, they need to do due diligence to ensure that they have the requisite expertise and legitimacy relating to the environmental claim the brand wants to make," Urbach says. "If [companies] make a misstep in this area, the brand could not only suffer legal and financial exposure, but reputational damage."
  • Tend to the message. Green marketing claims must be specific. Avoid green jargon or buzzwords when communicating the company's green efforts. Saying the brand's products are "eco-friendly," for example, could mean different things to different stakeholders. That ambiguity may put the brand at risk, Urbach says. "Companies need to know that the legal risk of a broad environmental claim far outweighs any benefits," he says. "So determine what environmental benefit your company or product is effecting — for example, reducing carbon emissions — and then tailor the message to the facts."
    — M.S.


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