brand story & messaging

Successful green product messaging minds the context

Carolyn McMaster | April 23, 2015

In the “more lessons about sustainability communications from Walmart” category: in thinking about my earlier post on the topic, I was reminded just how important it is to consider context—a close friend of accuracy and relevance.

Walmart’s Sustainability Leaders label came under fire for not successfully communicating the context of the claims at the point of sale, because the Leaders label does not make it abundantly clear that it refers to the company rather than the product. And people have to dig deep into Walmart’s website to learn what the labeling program is about and what the labels mean.

To be meaningful and credible, sustainability claims need context, and benefits claims should be true in the context of real-world situations. When citing carbon emissions reductions, for example, consider how the reductions in one area compare to your business’s overall emissions and how they relate to the product at hand.

For instance, the claim “uses 25 percent less harmful chemicals” is meaningless if you don’t say less than what, and it’s irrelevant if the original amount was minor to start with.

Claims also have to be applicable to reality. For instance, it’s not kosher to simply slap a “recyclable” label on packaging that can be recycled only at specialized facilities. Once people find out their recyclables can’t actually be recycled, they tend to get peeved—and massively mistrustful. Here, the context solution is simple: “This product may not be recyclable in your area.”

In Walmart’s case, the label could be applied only to the company’s products that are greener than their counterparts. And it could use language, in bigger type, citing an attribute that conveys why the company is a sustainability leader.

Here are three basic guidelines for developing messaging and marketing programs for green brands and products:

  • Anticipate questions. If someone might ask, “Compared to what?” answer that.
  • Accept a small victory. If your benefit is only a benefit to some, be honest about it.
  • Explain the unfamiliar. People should understand what your claim is based on.

I believe that much of the time, greenwashing is not intentional. To avoid inadvertent pitfalls, check out our guide, 9 Ways to Promote Sustainability without Greenwashing.

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