Commentary: Glamorizing Green Design

Sept. 27, 2006
By Robert McCall
Branding and marketing sustainability: guidelines for the design community.

The average person need not look too far to find stories of how man has inflicted irreparable damage upon the earth's ecosystem. Damaged beyond repair or not, one thing's for sure when it comes to the environment and attitudes about the environment: With all the dire warnings about planet earth collapsing under the weight of man's neglectful behavior—a fate we cannot with certainty predict or foretell—the average person doesn't respond as well as one might think to eco-friendly products wrapped in "save the planet" messaging, let alone grasp the concept of sustainable living as a broader idea.

The same can be said of your client—the facility manager, the building owner, the owner/architect, or any other owner representative holding the purse strings to your project of a lifetime. Only on top of this is the tiresome perception that green building is more expensive and somehow more difficult to accomplish. We know that this is simply not the case.

Why don't more of your clients get on board with green building? Beyond cost misconceptions, there are a few other common denominators. The first is fairly simple and has to do with understanding what motivates a customer to buy (classic marketing 101), and the second has to do with all of us who are committed to sustainability and what we can do to promote it.

Understandably, changing behavior plays a major role. After all, this is a key goal, whether we like being change agents or not. Achieving a measure of sustainability is about more than changing the way one designs. It's about changing behavior and helping your clients make the right choices.

If we in the marketing end of the spectrum can find a way to make cigarette smoking or driving a gas-guzzling SUV sexy, then we should be able to help you find a way to "glamorize" green by giving it a voice and a face, and convince your clients it's not only the right choice, but maybe the only one.

Reality Check
According to a recent UN study, environmental gains are being offset by a steady rise in worldwide consumption levels, and unless consumption levels are held in check, there may not be anything left to make products with, let alone markets to sell to—albeit an unlikely scenario, but a feasible one nonetheless. Consider this: It has been estimated that five times the earth's resources would be needed if all human beings were to consume as much as North America currently does. We are literally over-consuming a finite supply of resources and we need to change our priorities … pronto.

So how do we incite a much-needed change in priorities, and what can the design community do to create a more sustainable world before it's too late. We can start by mixing some old tried and true marketing techniques with some new ones to promote sustainable building strategies and lifestyles.

The New Green Marketing
Green product marketers today (and this includes manufacturers of environmentally responsible building products) are getting better results than their old green marketing predecessors once did. The reason is that in years past, marketers of green products incorrectly surmised that mainstream consumers and B2B customers outside of the narrow, green niche would be quick to cozy up to product claims that promised to protect mother earth.

Recent studies indicate, however, that while "save the planet" messaging carries some weight, this alone isn't enough to convince people to buy in the same manner more traditional reasons do, namely: How well does the product/service meet my client's basic needs? Is it safe to use? Does it save time and money? Does it meet codes and standards? What are its performance characteristics? Will it last? What are the economics of the purchasing decision? Does the product or service satisfy all of these issues as neatly as its traditional, non-green counterpart does? If you stop and think for a minute how you decide to specify the products you do, chances are you'll have a pretty good idea of the thought process your client goes through when choosing an architect or designer.

To consumers, and to B2B customers, these classic product/service promises are not interchangeable with "biodegradable" or "ozone friendly" or "bio-diversity safe" or "made from recycled materials." For green products and services to succeed, they must be as effective as non-green products and services. But if there is good news, it is this: Sustainable products, service offerings and values can be a successful brand differentiator, and research indicates that the opportunities for differentiation are perhaps greater in business-to-business circles than in consumer product markets.

The reason: B2B enterprises are increasingly identifying opportunities to position their products and services in the wider context of their environmental, economic and social impact. And your clients, who are likely interested in products and services that can have positive effects on their livelihood, are more apt to give sustainability its due—much more so than the average person. That's not to say building owners are pushovers when it comes to green design and construction. But sustainable offerings can be a panacea for you and your client, especially if your client's company currently practices, or wants to engage in more sustainable practices in the future.

Old green marketing's lesson is that while it is essential to include environmental and social features and benefits in product and service sell messaging, today's green design marketer should avoid leading with them—or with any messaging for that matter—that blatantly attempts to change buyer priorities. Better to promote the beauty and the functionality of the design first, and attach the environmental good that it does as icing on the cake.

Environmental Sincerity
The most successful way for your business to succeed as an environmentally and socially conscious entity is through a demonstration of the benefits your services deliver. And that means giving sustainability a voice and a face in your marketing materials and client presentations. The more your services and the products you specify are in lockstep with your company's social values and actions, as well as the social values and actions of the green building product manufacturers you endorse, the more value your brand will hold.

Whether you realize it or not, you do have a brand. And this is a reality that can place additional stress on your success as a green designer. Even manufacturers of environmentally responsible building products who don't subscribe to sustainable business practices are at risk of brand devaluation. So take extra care when specifying products claiming to be sustainable. Choosing the wrong one can make an already skeptical or yet to be convinced building owner even more skittish about your sustainable design offering, and could harm your brand's long-term value, and the value sustainability in general has to offer.

Sustainability and green values can be key ingredients in the emotional traits of your organization, but the key is to find a way to put them to work so that they attract business.

For the design community, economics and promoting a sustainable lifestyle are keys to the story. More than any other reason, this will ensure continued business success, help your clients make the right choices and humanize the benefits of sustainable design.

What does sustainability look like? Brands are powerful entities, and that goes for your brand as well. Given the power brands wield, humanizing sustainability might very well be helped along because of one very basic brand precept not yet mentioned: If you demonstrate and live what your brand represents every day, and lead by example, sooner or later your loyal customer will follow your lead. You are the face and voice of sustainability, and so are the countless others whose lives have improved working in a green building designed by you. As for glamorizing green, anybody have any ideas? We've got a few.

  • Robert McCall is a freelance writer and part-time branding consultant for BarberGale Inc., specialists in designing sustainable brands.

  • Sponsored Recommendations

    Voice your opinion!

    To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!