by Simonetta Lombardo
Some marketing research has highlighted how advertising based on green issues enhances the reputation of a company by making it more humane in the public’s eyes. It also reinforces the idea that a company’s products and services are of high quality and commensurately merit a higher price.
Laundry and household detergent manufacturers were the pioneers of ecomarketing in Western countries. In the 1980s, they gave their products a green image by building on the fact that these had become phosphate-free. Since the 1990s, many other products, ranging from cars to computers, have gradually added to this trend.
According to Ademe, the French Environment Agency, advertisements that focused on ecological issues between 2006 to 2009 increased fivefold.
The environment manages to attract a highly cross-cutting audience and an ever-growing number of people who are careful to buy green products, a bit out of real conviction and a bit in response to what’s in fashion. Green approaches are also a way of using the powerful public visibility afforded by advertising to cope with a certain developing environmental sensitivity. This sensitivity, in turn, is linked to stronger monitoring by NGOs of industrial activity and products with high environmental impact.
The abuses that green advertising may lead to, by diverting public attention from the real environmental impact that products and services have or by giving a deceptively virtuous image of a company, led to the formulation of the notion of greenwashing. This neologism, coined by US environmentalist Jay Westerveld, refers to advertisements that present products and services as ecological or as intended to protect the environment, but in which the environmental interest is minimal if not non-existent. It also refers to those communication strategies aimed at presenting a public enterprise, organisation or institution as committed to sustainable development even though their activities or policies are seen as highly problematic from an environmental point of view. Advertising tends to overestimate positive environmental values to the detriment of presenting the real impact that products and their manufacturing processes have on the environment.
Other actors in green communication. Public institutions and NGOs
In addition to companies, green communication strategies are also used by politicians and public institutions. Take the candidate who lets themselves be photographed while riding a bike or the community websites that show a green-dominated graphic echoing a lifestyle in harmony with nature. Even in these cases, the logic proves the same. The aim is to appear conscientious and trustworthy.
Institutions above all aim for communications that target behaviour as well environmental associations. These types of communications aim to promote a particular behaviour in individuals, gearing them to more environmentally acceptable lifestyles. Campaigns aimed at the use of public transport or waste recycling are part of this type of communication.
Building blocks of environmental communication
Research has shown that in order for an ecological message to be more effective:
- it must be neither catastrophic nor triumphal;
- it should display the data, for example indicating the extent of deforestation by showing two football fields disappearing every minute;
- it must also bear a personalised message so the recipient identifies with it. Rather than put an emphasis on radically changing behaviour, which would provoke resistance, it should stress small daily actions that do not require much effort, such as remembering to turn off the lights or taking shorter showers.
- to be more effective, the message must leverage stigmatization or, as appropriate, the social value given to certain behaviours.
- it must be a message that is spread through television and radio as well as closer communication channels that stimulate greater engagement.
NOTE ON COMMUNICATIONS IN GENERAL
What is “communicating”. In European languages, the term communicating comes from Latin. It means “putting things in common or rendering things participatory.” There is communication when information, transmitted from a source, is received and understood by the recipients. If the information does not arrive, if it arrives in a distorted way or if the recipients reject it, there is a problem. The responsibility never lies with the recipients who may not understand. It always rests with the broadcaster who may not know how to make themselves understood by the targeted recipients.
Communicating is necessary. Communication is not an accessory or ornamental element in social and political action. Indeed, it lays in many ways at the heart of it because modern democracies are based on consensus. Without effective communication, it is difficult to make citizens more participatory. It is also more difficult to make them discuss choices, appreciate obtained results, make shared objectives interesting, promote correct behaviours, or gain consent and maintain it. Of course, communication alone is not enough to remedy social or political misconduct. But it can and should enhance virtuous behaviour.
Being known and being liked: two different things. Being known alone is not enough. You can be very well known yet also very hated or criticized. What matters is that being known is positively associated with being liked. To provoke a scandal or the public according to the logic of “just as long as we speak about it” is a dangerous, short-term and counter-productive strategy. This is especially the case in the Internet era, particularly for institutions.
Communicate well. Good communication is clear, consistent, interesting, credible and memorable. It respects the recipients and takes into account what they know and think, even if (and especially if) it wants to orient what they know and think. A communication that does not move the recipient is ineffective. What strikes them but is not understood is misleading. A communication that provokes adverse reactions is ruinous and harmful.
In order to build good communication, it is essential that its objectives be clear, unambiguous, realistic, honest, and consistent with the situation and available resources. A communication is effective only if it achieves the goal that it has set itself. Just making noise is not enough.
The art of persuasion. If the communicator wants to motivate people to develop their own line of thought or to take action, transmitting pure raw information may not be enough. One must persuade. Cicero explained how to do it. He said that the good speaker must inform (docere or probare), but they must also entertain (delectare) to gain attention. They must also emotionally involve the audience (movere or flectere) to earn their fidelity.
Today the basic paradigm remains the same. A communication that persuades must arouse attention and interest. It must make itself understood and remembered by positively integrating information and emotion as well as convincing and motivating action. Doing it is not easy.
Knowing how to say the right thing, the right way. Building a good communication requires time, reasoning, design skills and vision. It calls for broad and solid professional ability. These are needed to bring together a new, coherent and effective synthesis of thousands of different yet also related data. These include data on objectives, content, contexts, the public, mass media, information, emotion, words, images, graphics, tone of voice…
A name, brand, campaign or action on social media is not improvised. This applies to commercial communications and is even more true for social and political communications. This are more complex because they deal with sensitive topics and highly emotional content. A good professional knows how to identify opportunities and risks. This is important because it is long, difficult and expensive to remedy failures.