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By Ethan Boldt

RISMEDIA, Sept. 23, 2008-(eMarketing & Commerce)-Green marketing messages are widespread, with environmental claims and certifications now almost commonplace among the many products and services that prospects receive. But are they effective? And if they aren’t, why not? Of course, the first question that comes to mind, especially among prospects, is, “Are they true?”

But once the greenwashing hurdle is cleared, marketers need to know which claims matter most to prospects. Moreover, they need to know where and how to position them on their marketing efforts.

It’s a complicated subject because green marketing remains in its infancy, as prospects are relatively new to truly caring about such things and marketers are new in promoting such values in their products. “Green marketing seems to be more important to younger people, and as they become older, they will expect and demand it in every phase of their lives. So, yes, it will become a more effective marketing message over time,” asserts Alan Rosenspan, president of Alan Rosenspan & Associates, a direct marketing creative and consulting firm.

I spoke to a handful of experts like Rosenspan, all of whom try to provide some answers about how to master the green message.

1. Walk the Walk before the Talk, Then Watch the Talk

Step one is to put those greenwashing fears among prospects to rest. The way to do that, of course, is running legitimate environmental initiatives within your organization that may extend to your marketing efforts. “To make an environmental claim, you have to have clients that are doing at least something to help the environment,” says Peggy Greenawalt, president/creative director at direct marketing agency Tomarkin/Greenawalt Inc.

Next, make sure your claims are specific and clear. The Federal Trade Commission has something to say about this in its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. On its website, it says, “The Guides recommend that marketers qualify environmental claims that are broad or vague – or avoid them altogether.

For example, broad claims like ‘environmentally safe’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ should be qualified – or avoided – because they can convey a wide range of meanings to consumers that may be difficult to substantiate.”

2. To Promote or Not to Promote?

That is the question that marketers must ask themselves. The question that does not need to be asked, however, is should you begin green initiatives in the first place? “It’s the right thing to do for business, and you will feel good about this. But every client will want to promote it in a different way. Some don’t want to be very vocal, and others want to use that messaging in their marketing communications,” comments Spyro Kourtis, president of the direct marketing agency Hacker Group and creator of the newly formed Green Marketing Coalition, which has such published goals as purchasing chlorine-free recycled paper, using UV printing presses and improving list hygiene.

3. Start with a Subtle, Yet On-Point, Green Message

Meta Brophy, director of publishing operations at Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, agrees with this prioritizing of the environmental initiatives. “At present, we don’t green the marketing efforts for customer ears but rather for our own. If the customer responds as well as or better than before once we’ve introduced our preferable choice, that subtle message was accepted, to our delight. It reinforces our efforts,” she confirms.

For example, the message, which Consumers Union printed on its summer control, was subtle and apparently readily accepted, with the response rate as the measure. Other subtle messages can include such environmental certifications and measures as FSC-certified paper, 30% postconsumer content, soy ink, 100% recyclable window, etc.

Brophy shares that, on the retention side, Consumers Union tried green copy renewal notices but not too successfully against the control. “I don’t think they got the message exactly right. I’m told that too many messages will have a negative effect on response, and that seems very true here. Somewhere it usually says something about saving trees, [but] it starts the conversation all over again,” she explains.

Instead, she says if the message is really clear and compelling, it might elicit a better response. “To say to a customer, ‘If you respond to the first offer, you will help us to save money and resources by eliminating follow-up offers’ is on-point. Saying you’ll save a tree is misleading,” Brophy points out.

4. Find Future Claims That Could Boost Response

While those recycle seals and paper certifications may help response, more significant green initiatives and proper messaging may deliver a more significant bump. “If I were to create a meaningful claim, it would be, ‘Part of your purchase price will be used for alternative energy research,'” suggests Greenawalt.

To find such claims, and of course develop these measures in the first place, take a look at the online Greening Advisor put out by the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’ve included lists of environmental criteria which purchasers should look for. Since there are many different certification organizations out there, we often recommend criteria rather than certifications,” says Darby Hoover, senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here are some green attributes to consider when producing a product, for instance: products that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or are made with renewable energy; products that reduce the use of toxins hazardous to the environment and employee and public health; products that reduce air and water pollution; and reusable products.

5. Appeal to Their Pro-Environment Position, but Also Their Pocketbooks

Don’t expect immediate success, warns Rosenspan. “People still tend to vote (and buy) with their pocketbooks. We offered to ‘plant a tree in your name’ if you switched to AT&T. We sent out 30,000 packages – I think we planted three trees,” he shares.

“We don’t know [yet] which environmental claims mean the most to prospects,” admits Brophy. “We don’t herald that message. We don’t detract from the primary message – order the product.” Consumers Union tests into preferable choices, which may or may not come with environmental claims, and looks to see that its choices don’t hurt the response.

6. Give Them a Benefit

“So I guess my advice would be: You can appeal to people’s higher nature and ask them to support the environment, but make sure there’s a benefit in it for them,” advises Rosenspan.

In a package he just did for Citizens Bank of Canada, he combined benefits and environmental messaging. “They have a program called ‘Shared Interest’ where they donate money to terrific causes like Doctors Without Borders. However, in our credit card packages, we do not make the mistake of leading with this program. We still sell all the great benefits of the card first. The ‘Shared Interest’ message is almost like the icing on the cake,” he describes.

Indeed, it seems that the “icing on the cake” strategy is best, as few prospects are going to see the great green claims as the cake. That may be coming, but it’s not here yet.

Ethan Boldt is an editor at Inside Direct Mail.