NEW YORK — Green marketing, a movement so hot that not even a deep recession could kill it, is starting to show signs of consumer revolt. At the very least, it's a signal that green alone isn't enough of a marketing proposition; at most, it could signal consumers simply aren't buying the benefits of environmentally positioned products and brands.
In recent months, sales have begun to slow in categories such as green cleaners and grow in not-so-sustainable ones like bottled water as shoppers decide they may not be worth the tradeoff. And a September study showed big swings in the number of consumers who believe environmentally friendly alternatives are too expensive, don't work as well as other products and aren't actually better for the environment — all of which seem to add up to what Timothy Kenyon, director of the GfK Roper Green Gauge study calls "green fatigue."
Take bottled water, long the nemesis of environmentalists. It was on track for another 52 weeks of decline but rallied nationally last quarter as sales rose 4 percent, according to SymphonyIRI, leaving it flat. Meanwhile, water-filtration devices saw years of double- and high-single-digit sales growth (including a double-digit sales hike in the first half of 2010) turn into a sales decline last quarter, according to IRI data from Deutsche Bank.
Then there's Frito-Lay, which last month pulled its compostable SunChips after complaints about how noisy they were. Greener cleaners, which had been one of the hottest trends in household products in recent years, also show signs of a shakeout. Clorox Chief Operating Officer Larry Peiros attributed disappointing top-line results in a Nov. 3 conference call to a decline in the natural cleaning segment. "We remain," he said, "in the No. 1 share position, but we're declining pretty much along with the category."
Measured sales of Clorox Green Works are actually up 5 percent for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 3, according to SymphonyIRI, thanks to the brand's launch into detergents last year. But that comes after a 17 percent average price reduction from the initial detergent introduction. And other, older Green Works products saw a 15 percent falloff in sales for the year, according to IRI data from the 52 weeks ended Oct. 3. SC Johnson's "Nature's Source" has also seen a loss of shelf space and prominence at some retailers this year.
Not everyone in green cleaners is singing the blues. Seventh Generation CEO Chuck Maniscalco said the green megabrand has seen double-digit growth this year after a flat 2009. Substantial additional distribution the brand has gotten (along with SC Johnson's other natural brand Mrs. Meyers) in more than 1,500 Walmart stores isn't even much of a factor in that growth yet. Method is also seeing a 20 percent sales hike so far this year after a tough 2009, said co-founder Eric Ryan, but he said there is a broader shakeout among green brands.
"We believe green sustainability is a macro trend that's going to continue well into the future," Mr. Ryan said. "But a lot of green choices require a change in behavior, and people are very slow to change. ... In a lot of ways companies are ahead of the consumer on that shift, and that's where you're seeing the shakeout."
Mr. Ryan compares green products to the "Gartner Hype Curve" of tech adoption. The market is moving from the "peak of inflated expectations" to the "trough of disillusionment," he said, but the renewed upward "slope of enlightenment" and "path of productivity" lie ahead. The shakeout can help, he said, by eliminating brands and products with faulty propositions. Increased distribution into new categories and retailers may yet drive some green products and categories this year, but some green brands are having trouble holding such gains. Marcal, the oldest and leading national brand of 100 percent recycled paper products that made gains last year on a major restage, lost distribution at one of its major accounts last quarter — Kroger.
Outside packaged goods, it's been a similar story for eco-conscious hybrid cars. Hybrid sales did well last year, up 3 percent in a market down 21 percent thanks to a host of new model rollouts, according to HybridCars.com. But this year hybrid sales are down 10 percent in a market up 10 percent.
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And in politics, the brand with the stronger green positioning — the Democratic Party — was soundly thrashed at the polls last week. The economy was, of course, a far bigger factor than the environment. But Democrats in coal-producing and Midwest industrial states were targeted in ads for their support of alleged job-killing cap-and-trade legislation, which would limit and raise costs for carbon consumption.
GfK Roper Consulting in its September report found what it described as a dramatic increase in the percentage of U.S. consumers wary of environmentally friendly product alternatives. The share of consumers who think green products are too expensive rose eight points in two years to 61 percent, while those who believe they don't work as well jumped nine points to 33 percent and those who believe they're not even as better for the environment in the first place increased eight points to 38 percent.
What should be most concerning to marketers is that skepticism is on the rise after two years of more consumers having first-hand experience with a growing number of green products. Consumers really do want greener products and companies, said Eric Schwartz, VP of North American laundry marketing for Henkel, but they're not willing to sacrifice much themselves for those things.
Henkel has succeeded with its Purex Natural Elements laundry detergent, which claims the same 95 percent natural ingredients that other green detergent brands do, but also claims the same cleaning power and sells at the same price as regular Purex. That's helped it grow sales now for three straight years, Mr. Schwartz said, reaching more than $100 million in retail sales.
"Consumers want everything they want, plus they want it green," Mr. Schwartz said. "When you give them that, it's a growth business in any market."
Can green marketing work?
Consumers have been rejecting green product offerings in many categories of late. Here are some of the ways to make green marketing work.
Don't expect much or any sacrifice from consumers. Whether it be paying more, accepting less performance, sacrificing convenience (with bottled water) or even listening to a loud snack bag, consumers have shown they're not willing to sacrifice much to buy green.
Don't overstate the case. Consumers will find out when green products don't work, and will tell others. Proposed Green Guide standards from the Federal Trade Commission make it more likely that claims that mislead will be subject to litigation.
Do have selling points beyond green. For most other consumers, green is, at best, a tie breaker. If the product doesn't have some other functional, sensory or emotional benefit, it probably won't fly outside of highly fragmented categories that can live on truly eco-involved "dark green" consumers.
Green marketing may work best indirectly. That is, by showing how companies change broad practices and seek to improve corporate images with consumers rather than sell specific products based on green appeal. Most environmentally-friendly consumer behavior takes behavioral changes. Generation Y and Millennial consumers are more likely to embrace them, but it will take time for the market to develop.
Consider going green outside the U.S. America is the 24th most skeptical among 25 countries surveyed by GfK, ranking below all countries other than the U.K., in belief that environmental pollution poses a serious risk (62 percent of Americans do believe that though). While Frito pulled its noisy bags in the U.S., it's sticking with them in Canada, humorously offering free ear plugs to complainers.
© 2013 Advertising Age