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November Newsletter

Will Green Fade to Brown?
Consumer Confusion Is Just One Challenge to the Eco Trend

You’ve probably noticed that much has been made of being “green” lately. You may also have considered jumping on the bandwagon but wondered: Will green stay green, or will it just fade to brown? Or, more importantly, you may have asked yourself: will green turn red into black? That is the billion-dollar question that we are all looking to answer.

Is Green the New Black?

Marshal Cohen

According to research I’ve conducted, “green interest” has seen significant growth. When we started asking consumers in 2002 if they were interested in or had purchased any eco-friendly products in the past 12 months (not including automobiles or organic food), 6 percent said yes. Two years later, 10 percent said yes. Then in 2006 that number rose to 18 percent. Now, in early 2007, 23 percent answered in the affirmative. Based on that research, we might conclude that not only will interest in things green sustain but that it will also flourish. But wait—not so fast! The short-term future of green products is not about today’s interest level but more about that interest six months from now and beyond.

Here’s what I see beyond the data: Interest in environmentally friendly products is being driven by several age segments. However, most of the activity is being driven by boomers and teens. Why those two groups? The boomers grew up during the founding of Earth Day and were early adopters of the green movement. As for teens, they are riding their skate and surf boards directly into this latest trend (yes, I would say we have a bona fide trend). Boomers look to green product to save money and the planet, while teens look to green product to save the planet. Boomers are seeking ways to be more efficient and responsible, while teens are looking to be responsible for their future—within their own lifetime. That is the here and now, but in the longer term I think we will see green face some significant challenges.

The Eco-Challenge

The first obstacle will be much the same as all trends driven by teen interest. That is, it will lose some steam and fade pretty much the way the boomers’ blue jeans did. Today’s teens are no less fickle than those who have come before, and they will hop onboard the next trend—whatever that may be.

The next challenge will be defining what green is. With consumer interest growing, marketers will want to capitalize on the trend, leading to a plethora of products and likely confusion regarding what exactly constitutes an organic or environmentally friendly product. Does using organic cotton to sew the buttons on a shirt—and no other organic product in that garment—make it green? The food industry was once able to make capricious claims about organic food products but now must meet specific criteria to legitimately state that products are organic. I’m reasonably sure we will see some regulatory influence crop up in the fashion world, too. Once the regulations kick in, the green tagalongs and wannabes will be driven out. The green bandwagon won’t be quite as full, but there will be plenty of room for the real deals.

Message In A Muddle

The footwear industry faces the same challenges and opportunities in going green, though it may face some additional battles. Some of the marketing messages for greener footwear products are citing the adjustments companies are making to the way their products are made. That is a tough message to communicate and one that will resonate only with a small audience. Some businesses are even using packaging as their path to green. This, too, goes virtually unnoticed by consumers. Another message is about using footwear in the pursuit of environmentally friendly activities. This is a message that is “of the times” rather than a message with sustainability. Those ads that ask us to tread lightly on our earth while wearing big clunky hiking boots in the pristine wilderness? Frankly, that message will march out of step quickly—much like every other marketing campaign that has been pegged to the big trends of its time.

For those of you considering jumping aboard the green train, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be authentic. Second, help your consumers understand what you are doing to make your claim for green real. Third, let your consumers embrace it, endorse it and educate their friends about it. If you are legitimately marketing an environmentally friendly product, make your claim, claim your space, ride the wave, be patient and wait out the competition from the wannabes.

Marshal Cohen is chief industry analyst for The NPD Group. Cohen makes frequent appearances on NBC’s Today Show and is the author of a best-selling marketing book, Why Consumer Do What They Do. This article first appeared in the August issue of WSAToday magazine.