What Can Five Million Gallons of Crude Oil Teach You About Green Marketing?

Quite a lot, if you’re paying attention.   Small businesses can use the BP model as a cautionary tale when it comes to green marketing.

First, let’s take a quick look at the history of BP, owner of the Deepwater Horizon well that exploded on April 20, 2010, causing the largest offshore oil spill in United States history. Started over 100 years ago, BP is one of the five largest oil companies in the world, with annual sales topping $69 billion US dollars.   Hoover’s lists the company’s primary industry as Oil & Gas Refining, Marketing & Distribution”, and of the 44 SIC codes listed for BP, 26 cover petroleum, natural gas, or gasoline.

Perhaps in response to the backlash against fossil fuels, or the emergence and popularity of alternative technologies, in 1998 the company began a rebranding campaign that included advertisements showing windmills, solar panels and other green” images, as well as a new logo crafted to look like a green sun.   They also introduced the slogan Beyond Petroleum” in an effort to distance itself from its origins as a purveyor of hydrocarbons.   An effort undertaken, mind you, while the company was still receiving more than 99 percent of its revenues from the drilling, marketing and distribution of petroleum and gas.

bp-green-marketingImagine the shock consumers received earlier this summer, when the company they had come to think of as earth-friendly, green and sustainable was suddenly faced with responsibility for one of the largest environmental disasters in US history.   Images associated with BP went from windmills lazily turning on grassy prairies to oil-soaked pelicans and burning oil patches – a major disconnect.   Since the oil spill started, BP’s CEO has been ousted, their stock prices have fallen and a Boycott BP” page on Facebook has garnered nearly 850,000 fans.

According to a recent Entrepreneur article, The BP blowout was the swan song of the old style of green marketing…a new type of green marketing has taken hold, one that has high standards.”

The old style”  of green marketing meant companies making green claims in the hope that consumers wouldn’t ask too many questions about actual practices.   Today’s consumers are green- savvy and have set the bar much higher for green marketing, so small businesses would be wise to heed the harsh lesson currently being learned by BP.

To successfully market yourself as green in today’s market, it’s not enough to change a few light bulbs or reuse scratch paper.   Your sustainability efforts must go to the core of   your operations and be reflected in every aspect of your company’s culture.   The new keys to successful green marketing are:

  • Transparency — be honest and up front about the commitment you’ve made to green business practices, and the progress you’re making.   BP’s experience has shown you can’t pretend to be something you’re not — and not every company can be 100% sustainable, so don’t pretend to be.   Share your challenges and successes.   Give your customers easy access to your green programs by incorporating your green story on your web site and other marketing materials.
  • Relevancy —Over 60% of consumers would be interested in buying green, according to a recent EcoPulse survey.   In reality, only about 20% of consumers are committed to buying green.   So, green isn’t always going to be enough to close the sale.   To appeal to more consumers — think about what Entrepreneur calls green-plus…green plus cheaper, green plus faster, green plus better.”
  • Information — The disparity between those consumers who are interested in green and those that are committed to green lies in confusion.   The EcoPulse study showed that 25% of respondents had no idea how to decide if a product is green.   The old style” of green marketing is also partly to blame — greenwashing has engendered a sense of buyer beware” when it comes to green products.   Overcome this confusion and help dispel suspicion by communicating your product/service’s green qualities simply and in a way consumers can relate to and understand.

Small businesses today have the opportunity to learn from BP’s recent stumble.   Use green marketing in a way that is sustainable in the long run, supported by real green practices that are transparent and visible to consumers.   If you try to do it any other way, it could be a disaster.

Katherine McGraw Patterson is the Director of Marketing for the Green Business Bureau, a national third-party program that provides certification for businesses that follow environmentally responsible practices. You can get updates and news from the GBB on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Green Marketing TV

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  1. GreenMarketing.TV says:

    @Katherine I have to say, I fell for the BP green branding campaign. Did you know that Greenpeace tried to give them the emerald paintbrush award for greenwash in 2008! Great article.

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