Tuesday, September 08, 2009

All Lost in the Supermarket, Take 2: What's Green Anyway?

A recurring theme in my consumer-focused story is simple equals better. The less you confuse customers, the more likely they'll single out a product or brand and retain a sense of its importance and utility in their everyday lives. For most items (not luxury or splurges, though), this is the main goal of marketing, branding, and consumer loyalty pitches. But sometimes it seems like confusion is the main goal of marketing: distract your opponent with the most noise and they'll acquiesce, pulling out their credit cards in the process.

According to Chain Leader magazine, a national survey conducted by the Shelton Group suggests that while the majority of Americans are interested in buying more green products, they are confused and lack information about how to choose among the array of possibilities. Indeed, Shelton Group's results have been presented as demonstrating that people would sooner buy natural rather than organic because they're confused about what organic means. Of course, the irony of this finding is that "organic" in the food category now carries a USDA certification and label, whereas "natural" has been so watered down by overuse in a variety of inconsistent ways, those that they surveyed tended to gravitate towards "natural."

Although Shelton Group generally has a sophisticated approach to sustainability (see their blog, for example), in this survey, they were perhaps misguidedly attempting to measure people's knowledge of green products, with organic and natural being presented as components of green. But even certified treehuggers will tell you that green is a variable and difficult concept to grasp in the first place -- and in fact, is already the focus of derision by those who can see the marketing handwriting on the wall, greenwashing their way into consumer's coffee cups, kitchens, and recyclable shopping bags. In an interesting twist, it seems that sometimes a government seal of approval is not enough -- in fact, it turns out possibly to confuse the matter more -- to make consumers step up to the cash register with certainty about what's in their cart. One thing is for sure: companies need to tread through the green fields lightly, accepting the fact that green is not as obvious as you'd think.

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