Corporate Marketing Commandments for 2013

Since the world didn’t end on December 21, it is appropriate to bow down to our gods and beg forgiveness for some of the most egregious marketing sins of 2012. We’ve been given a second chance so now we need to follow some rules:

Thou Shalt Not Degrade Thine Own Brandinstagram-facebook

Listen up Netflix, aka the former Quikster (for a nanosecond); and Instagram, aka Facebook: Brand equity is the richest gold you can have—and yours has been on a downward trajectory. When people love and believe in you, it’s much easier to forgive. But when you keep screwing up, consumers lose not only their patience but their loyalty. For Netflix it’s been the gift that keeps on giving, and on Christmas Eve it was a streaming outage that stretched across the U.S. The company blamed Amazon Web Services, but customers don’t care about who supplies the power, only that Netflix was down—yet another PR bomb. And Instagram’s hipster, indie vibe has been catching heat due to its purchase by the behemoth Facebook as well as a 24-hour about-face on terms of use for photos. They’ve outraged their customers multiple times now, so patience will be wearing thin for 2013.

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True Green or Greenwashing: Buyer Beware

Something more powerful than the largest coupon, the behemoth billboard or the mega ad campaign…the marketing of green. Now you know we don’t mean as in the color, we mean “Ecological Marketing” (yes, it really used to be called this in the 1970s) or quite simply put, using the power of  environmentally-friendly language to sell products or services. Now this isn’t all bad if the claims are true. Problem is, turns out much of the time advertisers are making claims that are either misleading or outright deceitful and it’s up to the careful consumer to discern who is doing what.  For instance, Chevy’s green, leaf-ridden advertisements that explain their higher MPG than Toyota. How does this relate to being “green” other than the color? 

And maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I am hardpressed to find any companies who haven’t jumped on the green bandwagon to get some benefit of their own. But then again, we are talking about marketing here.  And if a company is actually doing something good to help the environment in one form or another and they want to brag about it, and in turn that helps to sell products, all the better. Marketing at its most regal. Sorta. Kinda.

In fact, green marketing has become more than a buzzword, it has spawned an entire cottage industry of green marketing agencies, consultants and branders. Hundreds of such agencies to help companies  “find” their inner green benefits, even if none exist. Who knew saving of  natural resources needed an agent?

And consumer research has shown over and over that even though we love the idea of protecting the earth and words like “sustainability” and “energy saving”, a majority of us  are confused and skeptical of marketeers’ claims and as well we should be. After witnessing the rise of green marketing to unseen heights the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that green marketing comes in 3 flavors, each less tasty than the last:  1) Authentically Green  2) Green Speak 2) Greenwashing

Authentically Green –  Otherwise known as no-B.S. Green. The grandaddy of them all,  Seventh Generation, has been around for 20 years. They were doing green before it was a trend and marketable. Their product list reads like a who’s who of best practices From their web site: “Seventh Generation brand-name products include: non-chlorine bleached, 100% recycled paper towels, bathroom and facial tissues, and napkins; non-toxic, phosphate-free cleaning, dish and laundry products; plastic trash bags made from recycled plastic; chlorine-free baby diapers, training pants, and baby wipes; and chlorine-free feminine care products, including organic cotton tampons.” (ok maybe TMI on the feminine care products but you get the idea). 

Another quickly growing authentically green marketing industry is the lifestyle category, as in clothing, accessories, furniture and other household products created from recycled, natural, organic and otherwise green roots. These are not only helping the environment to repurpose what has been discarded, but companies are applying creativity and whimsy to eco-fashion, style and substance – An “A” in my book.

Or the  rockier yet noble road with the U.S. Government’s “Energy Star” program, which has fanned out internationally since it was introduced in the Clinton administration in 1992. Though not without controversy for its bungled energy-savings data revealed in an 2008 audit (and  subsequently cleaning up its act), it is one of the only government programs partnering with corporations to do something good for the environment. Seeing the “Energy Star” sticker on appliances, lighting, and even homes helps the consumer do their part to save the earth and often times get a cash rebate in the process. 

Green Speak – Ever notice many detergents and shampoos who display “biodegradable” claims? Guess what? Most of these products have always broken down in wastewater systems and never caused harm to the environment. Or that your bank is suddenly “green” because they encourage you at the ATM to switch to online billing to save 30,000 trees? Even though these practices may be true, they are the tip of the iceberg, or worse, not really a reflection of the entire organization’s practices. They are closer to Greenwashing than Authentically Green. And there are FTC Guidelines listed for questionable and downright  deceptive advertising practices,  for instance, if a label says “recycled,” it must tell the percentage of recycled content—unless it’s 100%. Or if a marketer uses the word “natural flavor” it means derived from a formula cooked up in a lab to taste and smell like the intended food, it’s not really natural from the inside out. Another green speak tool marketers use is certain colors on packaging, namely – you guessed it – green or sometimes white background with green or a tan “natural” color. The color green is also associated with healthy food packaging but it has taken on a new meaning with green marketing. 

And then there is the worst one (cue the Jaws music) Greenwashing – First coined by Jay Westerveld, biologist and conservationist, in an essay in 1986 to describe the hotel industry’s practice of urging consumers to reuse towels and sheets yet being very wasteful in other parts of their organization, this term has stuck. In essence, when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. “It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush”, as one green marketing watcher put it. Unfortunately there are many more examples of greenwashing than I would like.

One of the most egregious samples of greenwashing is the $15 million Chevron ad campaign “Will You Join Us”, replete with soft piano in the background  in its TV commercials while Chevron employees urge “us” to help the environment by taking mass transit, buying a hybrid and other helpful suggestions to the masses. My personal recommendation to Chevron? Focus on your own problems as one of the biggest polluters on the earth before try to tell “us” what to do. In fact, in many ways this campaign backfired on them, with an anti-Chevron web site, satire ad, and more bad press than they could have ever had nightmares about.http://www.lcv.org/newsroom/press-releases/i-will-point-out-hypocrisy.html.

Thankfully there are more and more blogs, web sites and organizations devoted to calling attention to greenwashing and publicly punishing its perpetrators. More examples of greenwashing marketing here: http://www.thegreenwashingblog.com/ and here http://www.greenwashingindex.com/ads.php . One of the major greenwashing watchdog organizations can be found here:  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Greenwashing. 

And similarly, it is up to the careful consumer to call marketers out on deceitful practices by filing a complaint with the FTC. See here for a brief primer: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/general/gen02.shtm  or FTC guidelines for Green Marketing: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/grnrule/guides980427.htm

Despite the abuses of green marketing and shady practices, a growing collective awareness has awakened marketers to how wasteful we are as humans and the many things we can do on a personal and societal level to help support our earth. It is unfortunate that the nexus for change for some companies has been to sell the other green – as in more profits  — and it is up to us as consumers to call them out on the carpet when they take exploit, take advantage or even downright lie in the quest for our collective desire to save Mother earth. The silver lining is that green marketing, when used appropriately, is pushing companies to examine and realign their products, services, infrastructure (and yes, of course their image).  Ultimately if this is the catalyst to do better for themselves and for society, green could be the new black.

This Ole Apple Tree Has Turned Into A Corporate Orchard

More and more as I look at the Apple computer advertisements over the past few years, I’ve wondered…are Apple and Microsoft really THAT different? You know, the nerdy  PC guy who tries to fend off a variety of PC system and aesthetics criticism from the chillaxin’ Apple guy? Sure, the companies have different roots, product offerings, technology, and most importantly perhaps, brand images, but recently I’ve pondered  if the dweeby Microsoft guy and laid back, clever-than-thou Apple guy could share a mouse, or at least a cab.

No doubt, it’s a smart, engaging strategy to personify and pit the PC’s Evil Empire against the Cool Understated Company (and damage every other PC maker with Windows in the process), but aside from the computer market , which Apple will realistically continue to undersell Microsoft, Apple has expanded its product lines to be a hugely successful consumer electronics company with brand recognition that matches and even exceeds Coca Cola, Nike or dare I say the American Flag. Apple may not have achieved computing domination, but it has succeeded branding intimidation – You can’t touch this.

They are also a mega-corporation that would read like many companies of today: layers of bureaucracy, stock backdating charges, questionable practices with competitors, and publicity misfires. So it’s safe to say the days of the little company that could  are over. 

And before anyone hurls rotten apples at me, I, myself, have prayed at the Church of Apple Faithful for years, but that doesn’t mean I can’t “think different” about them either (get it?). My nostalgic feelings for Apple go back to my college days: firing up my  box-shaped, latte-colored Macintosh in News Reporting I class – No PCs with their  complicated DOS, awkward interface and ugly looks. Mac was intuitive, a cinch to operate, WYSIWYG. So I fell in love and didn’t even know I was in the midst of a collective, exuberant loyal base of users helping to catapult one of the most powerful brands in the world. Over the years, my Macs have grown up with me as I made more money and pined for the latest and greatest Apple technology. And my loyalty runs deep:  I’ve argued with corporate IT to keep my Mac, been rejected by many  a software programs, can’t navigate on certain web sites (I still bill one of my clients on a library PC). But here I am typing away on it – because I love my Mac and  always will.

And many others have caught on to the Mac’s charm over the years. The core Mac base of graphics and design individuals and agencies has fanned out to  smaller, edgier companies, independent sorts, curious folks wanting to see what all the fuss is about, and Apple’s computer market share is starting to catch on – at least a bit. But really with their other products creating reams of revenue, how important will that be in the long run?  

Witness iPod: It revolutionized how we listened to music even though it may have not been the first or best MP3 player on the block, just the best designed and marketed (Zune and Sansa never had a chance). Add to that Apple’s number #1 music buying business, iTunes, and that one’s in the bag too. But wait… there’s more: the wildly successful iPhone that is embraced by the masses, loved by phone retailers, and obsessed over by application developers (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” had a bit  last season about George from “Seinfeld” developing the iToilet application that lets you know the closest clean bathroom – the reality cannot be too far behind). I’m not so sure about the recent launch of iPad (kind of obvious but seems to me no research was done on name? ya think?).

But back to Seinfeld – seems like the ad pummeling from Apple finally spurned Microsoft to start a wave of responses to their enemy. The first attempt using Jerry Seinfeld to pump up Microsoft and Vista in an offbeat way were a failure. People just didn’t get it. More successfully, the “I’m a PC” series with consumers rejecting Macs with comments like: “really nice but too expensive”, “I’m not cool enough for a Mac”, “They are based on looks”. Ouch – all those unsaid things Mac-haters said out loud.

And the Windows 7 release sparked another round of punches from both sides (Apple smartly and not surprisingly first). Though Microsoft was prepared with a Windows 7 campaign, it went back ten steps when they recalled the  “Family Guy” Windows 7 campaign a few days after it started as being “inconsistent”  with the Microsoft brand.  Apparently Bill never watched this ribald show before he gave the nod to the campaign.

Apple, 2 . Microsoft, 1. And the beat goes on.

So when all is said and done…it comes down to the one question I asked myself:  are Apple and Microsoft really that different? Yes they are..but. Clearly Apple has better technology, superior design, and more clever, consistent advertising and branding. But they are similar in one, very important way: Lil old underdog Apple is finally and securely on the same playing field as the Evil Empire now – if not an even better position. They are both large corporations with the resources to throw at marketing – whether successfully or unsuccessfully. And I, loyal Apple customer, will continue to buy my computers, iPods and sure enough iPhone from them, but make no mistake, I know I am buying from one of America’s biggest most successful companies, not the underdog I knew in college.