It’s Not Easy Being Green – Why Your Ethical Marketing Messages Don’t Work


Wise Words from a Frog:

There’s a lot of talk these days about being an ‘authentic brand who cares‘ and telling your ‘brand story’ – particularly if that story happens to involve some green credentials or a nice personal tale that brazenly leverages the better half of our social conscious somehow. Many brands, I imagine, look on with jealousy at their healthier, greener, 100% Irish, social-do-gooder competitors and wonder ‘Why them? Why not me? Why do they have to have it so easy?’ And they must, have it so easy, right? Well actually, as Kermit in The Muppet Movie says,

‘It’s not easy being green!’. 

I’m going to say something controversial here, that flies in the face of this whole ‘find-your-lovely-brand-story-and-shamelessly-flog-it-to-death’ approach… The general population don’t give one rudely-shaped organic vegetable about how green you are.

Not one little bit.

At least, not in the way you think.

But All the Research says So?

Check out any research (correctly administered using the correct methodologies – yes, Lord knows there’s few of those out there to begin with) and you’ll consistently see that pre-recession, during it and in whatever ‘longest-hangover-ever’ phase we’re supposedly in now, people in their thousands will consistently and emphatically claim that they are more than happy to buy green and ethically labelled goods, any chance they get. Yet, when it comes to scientistfilling up the trolley in the shopping aisle, their enthusiasm for the ‘good stuff’ doesn’t just dissipate, it becomes completely non-existent. And – as we know from our Clery’s cautionary tale – people can be as complimentary and sentimental about your brand as they like, it makes not one turnip of difference when it comes to ringing up the tills at the end of the day. The numbers, literally won’t add up.

So, what’s going on?

Well, for one thing, the fact that you asked them in the first place, and how you asked them, will greatly have affected the response.

Because whether the green question comes up in a way that queries a respondent’s green attitudes (evaluative component), green beliefs (cognitive) or behavioural intent (such as ‘Soooo, Mrs. O’Leary, do you plan on buying 100% Irish products when you next go shopping?’), the person who is answering, will always have the ‘model response’ floating in their heads. And that, is what messes everything up.

What do I mean be ‘model response’? Well, if – for example – you were to ask every single person in the country ‘Is it wrong to beat, torture and abuse women?‘, I guarantee that every one of them will look at you oddly and respond in the affirmative. Perhaps evening adding an ‘Of course it is! Why would you even ask such as stupid question?‘ And yet, a whopping 14% of all women in Ireland have experienced severe domestic violence at some point. So how does that make any sense?!

Lies, damned Lies and Statistics!

Well of course, you’ll already have the answer.

People lie.

What on earth would compel them to tell the truth? Particularly face to face with a ‘impartial’ interviewer, silently judging them. In a scenario like that they may even get into trouble with the police or social services!

But there’s more to it than that.

Because people (and incidentally culprits of domestic violence in particular) also lie an awful lot to themselves.

And this is what happens when you ask people about being equal opportunities employers, donating to charity, whether they care about their health, checking for lumps and bumps, buying 100% Irish, explicitly seeking out locally sourced produce and of course ‘buying green’.

We are ‘organically’ pre-programmed deep in our stone-aged DNA to want to make others think we are valuable, fine upstanding members of society. That we are, in essence ‘good’ – especially ourselves.

KermitDrinkAnd so, the marketing people go out after you’ve launched your latest product or brand and ask the masses do they prefer your naturally healthier, greener or socially conscious driven product more than this big brand or that own brand, and of course they answer ‘Yes’. And away said marketing team go to write the various award entries and have a few pre-emptive celebratory schoops. Meanwhile, you’re left staring at your dwindling sales in puzzlement. Something else must be going on there I guess? Wow – good thing you put all that money into that ‘check out how green we are’ marketing campaign or imagine how awful those results would be now, right?!

Erm… yeah.

50 Shades of Green

But I just know” – you might say – “that on some level green is important to people – I’ve seen it! On instagram, in restaurants, on the radio… Everywhere people are talking about organic and superfoods and carbon footprints and physically showing us on social media that they’re consuming green products.” Well, you’ve sure said a mouthful there, lonesome hypothetical blog reader! And to solve this riddle I have one very important question for you…

How many times have you instagrammed your loo roll?

Or your washing detergent?

Own brand apple juice?

Vacuum cleaner?


The problem is not all green goods are created equal. There are in multiple shades of green and the value of your greener, healthier or more ethical goods is all tied up in the same thing all products ever created are, since one ape made a sharper stick than the other ape – social capital.

Social Capital and Why Some Green Products Succeed

Social capital is the key deciding factor when a consumer is choosing amongst brands once the issues of function (ie. Does it do the thing I want?)*. Social capital is a very complex concept to get your head around but in short it is something that makes a product

a) more enjoyable to the consumer,

b) have a perceived value beyond that of its function, or

c) creates a signal or transfers a symbolic label onto the consumer, for others to see.

Both a and b, I would argue, are actually minor functions of c… but we won’t get into that now. The important thing to know is, products transfer labels and status symbols onto their users. And that’s where things get really interesting. Because when we look at the more successful ‘green’ or socially conscious products and outputs, we start to notice something:

1. Bags for Life

2. Charity Wristbands

3. TOMs (one pair for one pair to charity)

4. Hybrid cars

5. Organic/Locally Sourcing Restaurants

6. Craft Beers

7. The Ice Bucket Challenge

8. The Pink Ribbon

9. Movember Moustaches

10. Charity Races like the Women’s Mini Marathon

They all tend to be products or campaigns that offer people more than just the ‘core’ benefits of choosing something healthier, better for the environment or better for society.

They are all things that offer people social proof of the choices they’ve made which can be leveraged as social capital.  


Green Bling

In short, we tend to choose products that ‘do good’ much more often when we know there are going to be other people around to see us making that choice. So at times when it comes to what we wear, the bag that we carry, the car that we drive, the restaurant we go to, the food we give to our friends at a dinner party, the stuff we upload on social media.

Better yet, we love the stuff that allows us to talk about that choice to whoever will listen to us, looong after we’ve made it. Things that infer something positive about our person – whether it’s craft beers about our knowledgeability or a moustache to show we care – are the holy grail of consumer purchases. Meanwhile however in the privacy of our own homes, we will continue to choose price over quality for the short term, and (should the roar of the Celtic Tiger ever echo through the streets once more) value over quality in the long term.

So, if you want your green story to work – make it bling. Give it social proof.

Make it wearable. Make it shareable and make it tell a positive story about the user

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