Marketing eco-friendly products isn’t as easy as it might seem, particularly if the products involve some kind of sacrifice or behavioral change on the part of the consumer. Take a look at one of the supposed eco-villains, the auto industry. While one can criticize the big US auto firms (not to mention Toyota and Nissan) for continuing to push big trucks and SUVs to consumers who didn’t “need” them, the fact is that all of these firms were supplying what the consumer wanted. Yes, everyone knew that econobox cars used less fuel, emitted fewer greenhouse gases, and so on. Everyone was happy that automakers were introducing fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. But when individual buyers visited their local dealership, by and large societal concerns went out the window and people bought what worked best for them individually. For many buyers, massive SUVs and powerful pickups were the kind of statement they wanted to make, even if they never drove off-road and did little hauling.

What finally got consumers interested in vehicles that promised miserly gas consumption? Pure self-interest. When gas prices surged to $3, and then $4, per gallon, and filling up a big tank approached the $100 mark, suddenly many consumers shifted gears and tried to dump their gas guzzlers. (One could argue that all aspects of this behavior had little to do with rational decision making. The consumer first purchased a vehicle with capabilities he would never use, and then in selling it took a loss of many thousands of dollars to save, perhaps, $100 month.) The key point, though, is that the individual purchases had little to do with the greater good of society and everything to do with individual preferences.

Towels Aren’t Trivial

An even more persuasive data point is described by Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldsten, and Steve Martin in Yes! The book spends its initial chapters discussing a series of experiments testing how frequently hotel guests would let their towels be “recycled,” i.e., folded and put back on the towel bar vs. being replaced by freshly laundered towels. One would think that this is a small sacrifice to make for anyone with the most remote concern about the environment – is it likely that one could even tell whether the towel was new by the time one returned to the hotel room at the end of the day? In fact, though, mosts guests don’t recycle their linens. (I wonder, too, how many inadvertently choose the recycling option by forgetting to throw their used towels on the floor.) In the first part of the study, a mere 35% of hotel guests allowed their towels to be reused when urged to do so with a typical “preserve our planet” message. (For more on this study, see A room with a viewpoint: conservation messages and motivation.)

To me, that’s a good indicator that appealing to people’s concern for the environment isn’t a winning strategy, at least by itself. Nearly two thirds of the hotel guests in Cialdini’s study failed to participate in the towel reuse program, despite the fact that doing so would have been a trivial inconvenience. Considering that few people have the kind of emotional involvement with hotel towels that they do with their personal vehicles, is it any wonder that for years people continued to buy big SUVs, powerful trucks, and other high-status vehicles in preference to economical compacts?

What’s a Green Marketer to Do?

It’s clear that green appeal isn’t enough to get consumers to do something they don’t want to. So, how can green marketers succeed in a competitive marketplace?

Performance Validation. One key, I think, is to offer consumers reassurance that they are getting at least as good a product as they would with a non-green alternative. A few years ago, I remember avoiding a “green” paint-stripping product that promised it had “no dangerous chemicals.” Why? At some level, I was convinced that a paint-stripper loaded with dangerous, smelly ingredients and a page full of safety cautions was likely to be faster and more effective than some wimpy green alternative. What the manufacturer of the green product should have done was label their package with some test data showing that it was equally (or more) effective than the traditional product. That bit of reassurance might have been enough to sway me to choose a product that had fewer potential hazards.

Social Reinforcement. Cialdini was able to boost participation in the towel recycling program by 26% by the simple step of rewording the card to suggest that the majority of hotel guests reused their towels. Instead of appealing to their guests concern for the environment, the hotel suggested that the social norm was to participate. Interestingly, a further tweak was tested: the cards were again reworded, this time suggesting that the majority of people who stayed in that particular room had reused their towels. By making the information seem even more socially relevant and establishing a closer tie with the guest, participation was bumped by 33%.

Indeed, I’d guess that many of the early Prius buyers were motivated by social concerns. Despite the initially poor economics of the hybrid and its questionable cradle-to-grave environmental impact, some of these buyers wanted to be seen as doing the right thing for the environment or even to help set the social norm for others. In my opinion, many of the early Prius buyers were influenced every bit as much by social factors as buyers of ultra-costly luxury sedans and sexy red convertibles.

Endorsements. While perhaps not a primary effect, a product’s green appeal may be strengthened by an endorsement from a credible third party. Clorox, a name that strikes me as synonymous with harsh chemicals, has seen strong adoption of its GreenWorks line of products following a somewhat controversial endorsement of the line by the Sierra Club. (See Clorox’s Battle to go Green .) The appeal of the GreenWorks line may have been enhanced by testing which showed the products to be at least as effective as the traditional alternatives.

Reasonable Expectations. As evidenced by the towel-tossing hotel guests and Clorox’s naming a 5% share of their market as a laudable goal, green marketing stil has to be considered a niche approach. Still, if a green product offers performance advantages, it has a much better chance of success. A good example of this is the Prius. In its early years, sales were modest. When gas surged past $4, though, interest in the Prius soared not because of heightened concern for the environment but because buyers saw the vehicle’s cost premium as justified by their anticipated fuel savings.

In short, don’t count on a “green” product to sell itself in today’s market. For the majority of consumers (at least in the U.S.), concern for the environment is trumped by self-interest. (It would be interesting to do some brain-scan neuromarketing studies to further evaluate the potency of the green message.) If you want it to move beyond niche status, be sure your product has got something beyond its green heritage going for it.